Monday, August 18, 2014

Deregulation blues: anatomy of an inferno

          Lac Mégantic, Québec, July 6, 2013: a driverless train carrying highly volatile crude oil from Bakken (N. Dakota) shale oil deposits, careens into the town center at high speed in the early morning hours. It derails, spilling oil. The oil ignites during the crash and 47 people are burned to death in the conflagration.

internal blog links: keyword - Lac Megantic (6 entries), the most pertinent being:

              The federal Transport Safety Board recently released a report with recommendations. Some improvements in rail security - affecting the entire integrated Canado-american rail system have already been implemented:

"Changes have already been enacted, including tougher standards for the DOT-111 tanker cars that were involved in the Lac-Mégantic crash. The DOT-111s are considered the workhorse of the North American railway system." 

             However all is not as rosy as might appear at first blush. Attempts by journalists to obtain details about the circumstances leading up to the crash - records of inspections of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic rail (MMA) in particular - through freedom of access to information legislation have met with bureaucratic stone walls. Accessed documentation is heavily redacted on the basis of "confidentiality of third party information" or a desire "not to interfere with ongoing judicial proceedings". What has been obtained, though, paints a picture of an industry suffering from a lack of adequate regulatory procedures. MMA was found to be in dereliction of various safety and maintenance codes on a number of occasions. Fine, OK, no one is perfect - but why the hell didn't the government take action against MMA's owners to enforce compliance? We are talking about regulations to assure public security, after all. Is this more blowback from the Harper government's neoconservative ideological stance of laissez-faire capitalism: any goddam thing industry wants is OK? Including - perhaps - burning 47 people to death.. (until the people have had enough, of course..)

               An investigation by Radio-Canada (the French language arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) revealed what I personally consider to be shocking dereliction of duty on the federal officials charged with regulating rail safety. The investigation even raised the troubling question of who, exactly, does the government of Canada receive its marching orders from. "The two person rule" in the following quote refers to the traditional practice of having two engineers per train so that each can monitor the other's compliance with safety regulations. The idea is to reduce the probability of human error.

"A Radio-Canada investigation by Enquete has shed new light on the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that gave MMA its exemption from the two-person crew rule.

MMA applied to Transport Canada in 2009 for permission to operate with one-person crews as it was doing across the border in Maine. Transport Canada officials opposed this request because of the company’s history of safety violations.

A year later, a Transport Canada audit of MMA revealed major deficiencies in its performance and procedures, including train inspections and brake tests.

Yet MMA returned with the same request in 2011. Transport Canada’s Montreal officials again opposed the request saying, 'We consider that this major change in its operations would expose the crew and surrounding communities to greater risk.'

At this point the CEO of MMA’s Canadian subsidiary wrote to the industry lobby, the Railway Association of Canada, complaining about Montreal office opposition. A senior RAC official promised to “make some calls.” This intervention apparently succeeded because MMA got permission in 2012 — over the objection of public servants and the union — to run its trains with one-person crews.

Who made this decision and on what grounds" (emphasis added)

           Sooo... If I get that correctly, Ed Burkhardt, the former owner of MMA, did not like the fact he was refused the privilege of running trains carrying dangerous cargoes on decrepit rail lines with only one engineer aboard. Ed called his buddies at the Railway Association of Canada - an industry lobby group - and these dudes "arranged things" with "some calls" - presumably to federal regulators (??) and Ed got his way. That's neat! And 47 people burned to death. Obviously, one cannot prove cause and effect, any more than one can "prove" that a given freak weather system is due to global warming. One can only assign probabilities..

           And that's where things get sticky. Generally speaking, post mortems of major accidents like the Lac Mégantic conflagration reveal that such accidents are the results of rare combinations of events occurring in a fortuitous chain ("bad luck"). Safety therefore should involve reducing the probability of error at each potential step of error. Thus two engineers versus one so that one can check on the work of the other. In some cases, safety involves pre-emptively removing entire links in the potential chain of error. The MMA train that crashed into the Lac Mégantic town center was left unintended and on a slight incline. It's brakes failed - after firefighters had put out a small fire aboard the engine and left the scene - causing it to roll downhill several miles, gathering speed.. One could have eliminated a link or two in the chain of errors by assuring, for example, that trains with dangerous loads are not left unintended overnight and that they are not parked on a gradient. But neoconservative "business-is-always-right" ideology cuts corners on safety measures to maximize profits in privatized industries (like the rail industry). But now we are beginning to discover the "hidden costs" - the "externalities" as the economists like to say - of neoconservative policies. 47 people died. 

"Why did Transport Canada — despite repeated Transportation Safety Board warnings that DOT-111 tank cars, which punctured and exploded at Lac-Mégantic, were unsafe for transporting crude oil — not take strong measures to mandate their replacement?"

               And be assured, things will only get worse, not better unless the public demands better of our elected officials:

"The recent federal budget contains no increase in regulatory resources.

To my knowledge, as of mid-September 2013 there were 35 transportation of dangerous goods inspectors for all modes of transport.

Meanwhile, crude oil shipments increased from 500 carloads in 2009 to 160,000 in 2013. They’re projected to double by the end of this year. 

This is the equivalent of one inspector for every 4,500 carloads of crude oil, up from one per 14 in 2009. By the end of this year, it will be one per 9,000 carloads." 

                 Deregulation blues: cuts in regulation cause errors to pile up on errors.. 

                  When will the public decide that it has had enough of this madness..

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