Monday, July 15, 2013

Petro-transport: rail or pipeline? - Apocalypse in small town Québec

         Here is the human face of nonsustainable development based on fossil fuel energy. Early Saturday morning, July 6th, 2013, a runaway driverless train, loaded with light crude oil, crashed at high speed into the town center of Lac Mégantic, Québec. It overturned, spilling oil which ignited and creating a general conflagration which obliterated the town center. Even if you don't speak French, the following 10 minute youtube video is worth watching for the emotional adrenaline and the visual effect. It even catches a bit of the mesmerizing, hypnotic quality of great fires which draw onlookers like a magnet with their surrealistic kinetics and infinite gradations of color and texture.

            This then, dear reader, is the high price we pay for non-sustainable development (or "pseudo-development" as I prefer to put it). We desperately need to develop new, cleaner sources of energy! And sooner, rather than later. Ironically these "new" sources are not lacking: all that is lacking is political will. Today, one can only ask: how many more holocausts like this will it take.. (And as a friend worries: and when the masses finally do wake up, might it not be too late to do anything.. ouch!)

             As of this writing, 50 persons are missing and presumed dead. Thirty five bodies, charred beyond recognition, have been recovered, more than a week later. Few have been identified. Much of the town center (population 6000) has been effaced. Landmarks, including historic architecture and the town library, are gone - forever (a replacement is not the original..) The town library was a regional archival center. All that local history lost..

             Some people, of course, don't want pipelines - "not in my backyard!" Yet, statistically speaking, rail transport is even more risky and about three times more expensive. The alternative - "the road not chosen" - is to reduce our consumption of oil with alternative energy sources which have less environmental - and human - impact.

            The rail company behind this accident, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, looks like a vulture, buying up failing regional rails. Their reputation is terrible. There have been many complaints of breakages, leaks, spills, noise and indifference to public complaints from residents of Lac Mégantic and environs long be
fore this catastrophe. The complaints fell on deaf ears. The bottom line appears to be all that counts, either for corporations in the current deregulated market economy or for the spineless governments that service them. According to some accounts I heard, even the very rail line itself is falling apart in places. Another problem was the fact that heavy trains with dangerous cargoes were passing within about 30 feet or so of residences. This is insane..


              As one might expect, it's a "complicated" story with multiple finger pointing starting already.

              The train - with one driver only - stopped at a town, several miles distant. The driver should have set both air brakes and manual brakes. One locomotive (of 5) was left running to
keep pressure up in the air brakes. The driver checked into a hotel for the night. All this was "standard practice".

             During the night, for unknown reasons, a fire started on the front of the train. What followed is contested by different parties. A volunteer fire fighter team put out the fire (which involved turning off the running locomotive, possibly decoupling it from the train and various other manipulations). Before the firefighters left they encountered representatives of the rail company who insured them that all was in order.

             Then, once again for unknown reasons, in the early morning hours of Saturday, July 6th, the driverless train rolled down the slope it was parked on. 

              Why was it parked on a slope in the first place?

              Why, given that train was carrying hazardous material, was it "standard practice" to leave it unattended with one locomotive running all night?.

               At any rate, the rogue train gathered speed over a distance of several miles and rolled into the center of Lac Mégantic at a frightful rate (some say over 60 mph making buildings shake and awakening sleepers). It derailed in the town center, oil was spilled and ignited somehow. The rest is history.

              People seem very angry over this one because of the traditional arrogance and indifference of the rail company to complaints and safety issues.

              Of course, regardless of where the blame lies, 50 people are dead and numerous families and businesses have been devastated. Economic costs will be astronomic as the town center was blown away. No one has a handle on the ecological damage yet but it promises to be severe, perhaps irreparable in places. Oil and toxic combustion products are said to have saturated the soil to a depth of eight feet, for example. Local aquatic ecosystems - lake and river - are affected, but to what degree no one knows. Tourism is down, with numerous cancellations throughout the region. The longterm knock on effects will last for perhaps a decade, amplifying the costs of the initial accident several fold. And these are only the monetary costs. Add to that the "cost" of bereavement, stress related medical costs, post traumatic syndrome.. 

              An event like the Lac Mégantic conflagration can be approached from a number of viewpoints and perspectives. Beyond the heartrending human tragedies it is easy to see the accident as the more or less inevitable result of an eternal conflict of values. One the one hand, there are the values of profit and individual "autonomy" and, on the other, the "Common Good" and a felt obligation to pass on to our children a planet in as good shape as the one we inherited from our parents. Only in our time - due to the intensity of modern technology, ideological shifts and the pressure of overpopulation - has this eternal conflict reached truly apocalyptic dimensions.

               What is actually shaping the balance of forces between "individual freedom" and the "Common Good" are ideological considerations. Despite conventional denials, North America is actually under an ideological regime as rigid as that of the former Soviet Union but vastly more sophisticated. So sophisticated, says critic Yuri Orlov, that we don't even know someone is pulling our strings. Soviet propaganda was ridiculed by the people, behind closed doors. Our propaganda system, which trains us to mindlessly consume things we don't really need, actually gives us the appearance of delivering what is promised. Only recently have people have people begun to challenge received neoconservative, Market Forces, ideology: the Occupy Movements could be read as a recent symptom of simmering discontent.

               On the whole, though, most people probably still believe in the (North) American Dream: that a "little man" though his own efforts, if he is made of the Right Stuff, can make it big or, at least, "move up in society" so that his children will live better. This dream has, of course, been an illusion for decades as high quality North American jobs were shipped overseas to third world sweatshops - to the disadvantage of workers in both the first and third world. It's the old "divide and conquer" strategy, obviously..

               We have lost the wisdom of the framers of the American Constitution. They believed in "separation powers" so as to avoid the abuse of power.

                Today, deregulated industries like the railways, decide how they will implement government guidelines. True, some money is saved upstream in the form of bureaucratic cuts. But the last few decades have also increasingly shown us that pennies saved by cutting public services cab turn into dollars of accumulating costs downstream. We have become in the wisdom of our grandmothers: penny wise and pound foolish. Our ideology cost us more than it saves us. It is only in the case of apocalypses like that of Lac Mégantic, that we are confronted with truly stupefying actuarial statistics: how much, exactly, is a human life worth..

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