Sunday 6 July 2014

Cutting corners

This day last year, 5 people were vaporised in Lac-Mégantic, PQ, Canada.  By which I mean they became their own carbon footprint because nothing solid was left of them, not even their shirt-buttons. We live a fairly secluded news-poor life-style but I'm still surprised that the events of the previous night weren't relayed with relish by RTE News. In April last year they broadcast a repellent clip on the radio of a small deafened girl crying for her father after a huge explosion in West, Texas. Maybe RTE covered the Lac-Mégantic Derailment, but I didn't hear anything about it until several weeks later. There must have been a fatal car-crash in Roscommon to bump the story.   The 5 missing-presumed-dead people and 42 regular-dead people were killed because of a failure to adequately control the safe operation of railways in Canada. My reading is that turning a profit for the management and shareholders trumped maintaining a safe level of redundancy in the complex system that railways represent.

On 5th July 2013, a train left Montreal travelling East to St John, New Brunswick carrying over 7000 tons of crude oil for processing at an oil refinery.  The oil originated in the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and had probably been fracked out of its bedrock. The previous year, rail company had convinced the rail regulator that it was okay to put such trains - 1.4 km long (!) consisting of five engines, 72 brim-full oil-tankers and a caboose - in the sole charge of a single engineer (SPTO - single person train operation). At around midnight, at the end of  a long day's work, this engineer stopped his train, leaving one diesel engine running to maintain pressure in the air brakes, called a taxi and went off to a hotel for the night.  Shortly afterwards a passer-by noticed that the running engine was on fire, and called the fire-brigade.  They arrived, switched off the engine (following their standard operating procedure), extinguished the fire and went back to base. As soon as nobody was watching the train started to move s l o w l y forward under the gravitational force of a 1% slope. Twenty minutes later it had gone 11km and arrived in the middle of downtown Lac-Mégantic travelling at 100km/h without lights and left the rails on the first significant curve in the track.  60 of the tanker-cars trundled into the streets and started spilling their loads which didn't take long to ignite; the fire ruptured more tankers in a chain-reaction that wasn't brought under some sort of control until tea-time 16 hours later.  The oil spilled into the sewerage system and caused a succession of explosive eruptions blowing manhole covers into the air. Very few people were injured compared to the 40-50 people dead: a wall of burning oil is not a half-measure thing, and about as hard to out-run in bare feet as a tsunami.

I can now add another substance to the table of relative amounts it takes to kill one person
Botox Theory 150 ng
Sarin Syria 150 mg
Propylene Los Alfaques 150 kg
Carbon-dioxide Lake Nyos 150 ton
Beer London 150 ton
Crude oil Lac Mégantic 150 ton
Water Vajont 25000 ton
That's kind of interesting: crude oil is about as dangerous as beer and carbon-dioxide. I've described how difficult it was for the British Fleet Air-arm to ignite the the crude oild spilling out of the Torrey Canyon in 1967.  The beer cited above killed by drowning. One might, with advantage, consider its killing power when ingested.  But that's another story.

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