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Quebec explosion shows need for safer hazmat shipping plan

The horrendous explosion earlier this month of a freight train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, provides a kind of grim vindication to the activists who successfully blocked a proposal to run trains full of hazardous materials through Chelsea, Somerville, and other communities. The 72-car train, carrying oil from North Dakota to a Canadian refinery, derailed and leveled a neighborhood, killing at least 38 people. By coincidence, the accident came just a few days after a Boston-area firm announced it was abandoning its controversial plan to move highly flammable ethanol by rail to a terminal in Revere.

The decision by Waltham-based Global Partners LP was good news: It wasn’t appropriate to bring such large amounts of explosive material through such a heavily populated corridor. But simply blocking the transfer of hazardous cargos doesn’t eliminate safety risks. In most cases, it shifts them someplace else. The real lesson of the Quebec tragedy is the need for tighter regulations of shipments — for instance, banning the use of one-man crews like the one used by the train company in Lac-Megantic — and a more rational approach to ensuring that dangerous shipments move by the safest practical routes and methods.


Cutting the overall use of hazardous materials would reduce the risk in a fair way. That’s a worthy goal, but a distant one at best; the use of ethanol, for instance, is mandated by US law, and fossil fuels like oil and natural gas will remain primary energy sources until more renewable power capacity becomes available. The priority should be to ensure they move in ways dictated by safety, not by whichever community can most effectively pass the risk off to someone else.

Indeed, one reason hazardous shipments by rail have increased so rapidly — from 9,500 cars of oil five years ago to 233,811 last year — is that the United States lacks sufficient pipeline capacity. Pipelines are the safest way to ship many hazardous materials, but face serious community opposition. Shipping by barge is also a safer option in some areas. When those methods aren’t available, hazardous materials go by rail; when even that’s impossible, they often travel by truck, which in most cases is the least safe mode of all. For instance, according to the Department of Transportation, there were 1,007 ethanol incidents in the United States between 2010 and 2012 — 951 involving shipments by highway, 21 by rail, 3 by the water, and none by pipeline. In Massachusetts, all 20 recorded incidents involved trucks. Yet, perversely, trucks slipping anonymously down the highway seem least likely to arouse protests at the community level.


The opposition to the trains in Massachusetts won’t keep ethanol out of the state. About 40 truck loads of ethanol travel the Mass. Pike in a week. If one of them gets into an accident, it won’t be the fault of the ethanol train’s opponents — just as only the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway can be held accountable for the Lac-Megantic accident. Still, the events are all connected. Without a commitment to base hazardous shipments on safety, we’re left with a network that owes its shape to fear, money, and political clout instead.