CN Tanker Train Derailment Causes Explosion, Fire in Gainford, Alberta

A Canadian National (CN) tanker train carrying liquefied petroleum gas and crude oil derailed early Saturday in the community of Gainford, Alberta, about 80 km from Edmonton. The derailment caused a massive explosion and started a fire, prompting the evacuation of about 100 people from the community.

CBC News reports that "13 cars — four carrying petroleum crude oil and nine pressurized containers carrying liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) — left the tracks along Highway 16 and Range Road 61" at around 1 am Saturday, according to the Transportation Safety Board.

Parkland County spokesman Carson Mills said that there was a "significant explosion" at the time of the derailment, followed by a "smaller one." No injuries have been reported.

CN spokesman Louis-Antoine Paquin said three of the tanker cars, all containing liquid petroleum gas, were on fire and leaking, reports the Guardian. The community, and all residences within 1.6 km of the derailment, were evacuated in case of another explosion.

"It's still a risky situation so we need to contain as much as possible and keep people far away," said Mills. Parkland County has declared a state of emergency for the area surrounding Gainford. Residents have been told to keep out of the evacuation zone until further notice.

Jim Phelan, Parkland County fire chief, said they were "better off to allow [the fire] to vent and burn," adding that it was "unsafe to start fire-suppression activities," reports the Calgary Herald. Phelan told the news conference that residents saw a "large fireball" at the time of the derailment, and said that the cause of the explosion is "yet to be determined."

CBC reports that "55 Evansburg RCMP officers and emergency personnel are on hand and are working with CN and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada to manage the situation," as well as fire crews from Parkland County and Yellowhead County, and a HAZMAT team from Edmonton.

Alberta Environment spokeswoman Robyn Cochrane said it was too early to assess the damage done by the derailment. "We just won't know the extent, from an environmental point of view, until it's all said and done," Cochrane said. "We'll work with the company on containment and then also remediation."  

Parkland County Mayor Rod Shaigec said that "this could have been worse, given the recent incident in Lac-Mégantic — that certainly does illustrate the threats to residents living along rail tracks. So we're thankful it wasn't of that magnitude."

The July 6 derailment of a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Company tanker train carrying crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, caused 47 deaths, with about 5.5 million litres of oil burned or contaminating the environment. The tragic incident has put the increasing transport of crude by rail in North America under close scrutiny.

On October 16, just three days before the Gainford derailment, another CN train carrying fertilizer derailed near Sexsmith, Alberta, causing an evacuation of the town.

Greenpeace has spoken out against the Harper government for putting the needs of the oil industry over the safety of Canadians.

"This kind of disaster will become the new normal unless the federal government takes much more effective measures to improve oil transportation safety," said Greenpeace spokesman Mike Hudema.

"The truth is that the Harper government has become such a cheerleader for the petroleum industry that it is failing in its duty to protect our communities and the environment," said Hudema. "This is the third major derailment in Alberta in the last few months. How many more will it take before Ottawa implements transportation safety regulations that were recommended more than a decade ago?"

Documents obtained by Greenpeace recently revealed that CN and Natural Resources Canada were considering a plan last March to move oil by rail from Alberta to BC for export to overseas markets, in capacities matching that proposed for the Northern Gateway pipeline.

The train that derailed in Gainford was travelling from Edmonton to Vancouver, BC, said CN spokesman Paquin.

Whether the Harper government continues to push for the transport of oil by rail despite the numerous safety concerns and growing number of derailments remains to be seen.

Image Credit: Parkland County / Facebook

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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