Concerns rise about environmental impacts of Lac-Mégantic train disaster

Scott Sutherland

In the aftermath of the devastating train derailment in Lac-Mégantic early Saturday morning, concerns are on the rise about the extent of the impact this disaster will have on the local environment and its residents.

Residents in the area are already being advised to boil any water they use for 5 minutes, and to limit how much water they use, as oil from the derailment has spilled into Lake Mégantic and the Chaudière River, and has flowed downstream as far as the city of Saint-Georges, roughly 80 kms to the north. According to CBC News, floating 'booms' were placed in the water to contain the oil from spreading too far, however, whether these booms will have an effect depends on exactly what type of oil the train was carrying.

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Irving Oil Ltd, the owners of the New Brunswick refinery this oil was headed towards, confirmed in a statement that the train was carrying crude oil, but no mention was made whether it was light crude or heavy crude, or where the oil originated from.

Light crude oil tends to float on top of water, where it can be more easily collected by these booms, and it can be more easily cleaned up by skimming it from the water's surface. Heavy crude, like bitumen, sinks to the bottom, however, making it much more difficult to contain and to clean up. Regardless of the type, these oils contain toxic chemicals. Light oils tend to evaporate, putting chemicals into the air, but they also leave behind residual contaminants in the water and soil. Heavy oils evaporate less, but they have a bigger impact on the water, soil and wildlife.

Exactly what chemicals are released differs based on the type of oil, where it came from, and what method was used to extract it from the ground. The National Library of Medicine says: "Exposure to crude oil may irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. It may cause dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, confusion, and anemia. Prolonged skin contact with crude oil may cause skin reddening, edema, and burning of the skin." However, until the type of oil is known, it's impossible to tell the exact effects, on the residents, the wildlife or the environment.

Steven Guilbeault, the deputy director of the non-profit environmental group Équiterre, told the Montreal Gazette that he suspected it was shale oil from North Dakota.

"It's not the oil people are used to," he said in the interview. "Beyond that, [it's a question of whether] it's light crude or heavy crude. ... Depending on the type of crude oil, the environmental impacts, safety issues, decontamination issues are very different because of what's in the oil."

In addition to the oil spilled and chemicals evaporating into the air, the explosion sent clouds of thick, black smoke billowing into the sky. With the fires lasting throughout the day on Saturday and well into Sunday, the smoke was blown by the winds over the state of Maine, and as far east as St. John's, New Brunswick and into southern Nova Scotia.

The normal concerns about breathing in smoke from a fire are enough of a concern, but the smoke from burning crude oil can contain lead, sulphur dioxide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. According to the National Library of Medicine, "exposure to burning crude oil may harm the passages of the nose, airways, and lungs. It may cause shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing, itching, red or watery eyes, and black mucous."

This is just the latest of several oil spills in Canada, with another spill happening in northern Alberta less than a month ago.

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As for the cleanup effort, once they can get to it, Keith Stewart, an environmental researcher with Greenpeace Canada, told the Montreal Gazette: "Typically what they have to do is try to scoop it up out of the water and dig up the soil that's been contaminated, and they can never get all of it. It gets into the ecosystem, it gets into the water, it gets into the soil. Depending on the amount of oil spilled, the effects can be big, and they can mitigate the damage, but not get rid of them entirely."

The extent of the environmental damage is apparently very difficult to tell at this point. The faster the oil can be collected, the better the situation will be, but this has been complicated by the fires. Even though emergency workers reported that the fires were out early on Monday, the area still remained too hot to approach. This delay will mean more contamination, regardless of the type of oil, but once the source of the oil is known for sure, a better assessment can be made.

(Photo courtesy: The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson)

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