Last Tuesday night, a CN Railway train carrying crude oil and propane derailed and subsequently caught fire near the small community of Plaster Rock, New Brunswick. The fires continued to rage at the site of the derailment for the following three nights. Approximately 150 nearby residents were evacuated and later returned to their homes on Saturday.

The train derailment in Plaster Rock is reflective of the increasing number of incidents relating to the shipment of oil by rail in Canada. With regulatory delays in the construction of many pipelines across North America, the petroleum industry has come to increasingly rely on rail as a mode of shipping transportation. With the increasing frequency and seriousness of oil-by-rail incidents, the capacity and competency of Canada’s rail industry to deal with the expanding amount of petroleum needing to be shipped throughout the continent is being questioned.

Aside from these oil-by-rail incidents causing immense safety concerns for communities near railways, the extensive environmental damage from these derailments is a  major issue as well. Both the short- and long-term damage to the environment is cause for major concern. With derailments such as the one in New Brunswick, environmental hazards are numerous, from the petroleum that leaks out of damaged rail cars to the air pollution as a result of ongoing fires. 

Train derailments like the one in Plaster Rock have multiple adverse impacts on the environment. Due to the highly flammable nature of oil and gas, the extent of the ongoing fires creates considerable amounts of air pollution, as the petroleum that is burning contains a multitude of toxic chemicals. As well, there is concern over the effect on plant life and soil in the area where the petroleum spilled and left residual contaminant in the soil. On the day of the derailment, one nearby resident reported he was ankle deep in some of the petroleum that had escaped from the train cars. Soil that has been contaminated will have to be dug up and though much of the spilled petroleum can potentially be removed, it will be impossible to extract all of it. 

Another concerning aspect of the spilled petroleum is the polluting effect on local water sources. Contamination levels, and the ease of clean-up, will depend on the type of crude oil. Light crude is much easier to collect, as it floats on top of water, whereas heavy crude (like bitumen) sinks to the bottom. It is not known what type of crude the train was carrying. Regardless, these oils contain toxic chemicals that have the ability to permeate into the local environment and contaminate water supplies and local habitats. 

When comparing the shipment of petroleum by rail to other methods of transportation, it becomes evident very quickly that rail accidents, though somewhat infrequent, cause the most environmental damage. On average, train spills result in tens of thousands of litres more of crude oil seeping into the environment compared to pipeline leaks. Truck accidents, though frequent, tend to spill even smaller quantities.

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