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Basics of the Lac-Mégantic derailment and fire

Early Saturday morning, 6 July, at approximately 1:15 AM ET, an eastbound Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train with 72 carloads of crude oil and 5 locomotive units derailed at the Rue Frontenac road crossing in Lac-Mégantic, Québec. The resulting fire and explosions devastated the center of the small town (pop. 6,000), with the official death toll at 5 as of 1:08 PM ET Sunday 7 July, according to the CBC, with as many as 2,000 people forced to leave their homes and many still unaccounted for.

According to the CBC report, fire officials confirmed that three out of five burning tankers had been extinguished with foam; the remaining two more are still on fire and at risk of explosion.

Lacmegantic
Lac-Mégantic, Québec. Click to enlarge.

According to MM&A, the train was stopped and tied down by the locomotive engineer at 11:25 PM Friday on the mainline at Nantes, a station approximately 6.8 miles (11 km) west of Lac Mégantic (and uphill), for a crew change. Subsequently, the train rolled downhill into the town of Lac-Mégantic, where the derailment occurred.

Lacmegantic2
Nantes (far left), where the train was stopped, and Lac Mégantic (far right). Click to enlarge.

The engineer was not on the train, but had proceeded to his resting point at a hotel in Lac-Mégantic.

MM&A said that railway personnel were able to pull 13 carloads intact from the site at the rear of the train. At the time of its statement, the company did not know how many cars derailed. Further details will be gathered from the event recorder onboard.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is sending investigators.

Early speculation on the Internet suggested a BLEVE (Boiling-Liquid Expanding-Vapor Explosion) as potentially responsible for the degree of destruction reported in Lac-Mégantic, and during an onsite press conference broadcast by the CBC, one of the firefighters referenced the danger of BLEVE with two remaining tankers (at 2:37 in the video).

A BLEVE occurs when a container in which a liquid is held above its atmospheric-pressure boiling point ruptures, resulting in the explosive vaporization of a large fraction of the contents. A BLEVE generates three main hazards: blast wave, projections of container fragments and if the liquid is flammable, a fireball.

BLEVEs occur with a certain frequency: the substances that can lead to them (butane, propane, vinyl chloride, chlorine, etc.) are relatively common in the industry, as well as the installations in which they can happen (tanks and tank cars). They can have diverse origins, such as runaway reactions and collisions, but the most frequent one is the action of fire on a container. Table 22.1 (Prugh, 1991) shows a list of the most significant BLEVEs that have occurred between 1926 and 1986. As can be seen, most of these involved fatalities. Another source (Londiche and Guillemet, 1991) mentions 900 fatalities and over 9,000 injured in 77 BLEVEs occurring between 1941 and 1990.

—Casal et al., Modeling And Understanding BLEVEs

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic began operation in January of 2003 and owns more than 510 route miles (821 km) of track, serving Maine, Vermont, Québec and New Brunswick. The pulp and paper, petroleum, forest products and chemicals industries are the major sources of traffic for the railroad.

Resources

  • Tasneem Abbasi, S.A. Abbasi (2007) The boiling liquid expanding vapour explosion (BLEVE): Mechanism, consequence assessment, management. Journal of Hazardous Materials, Volume 141, Issue 3 Pages 489-519 doi: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2006.09.056

  • G.A. Pinhasi, A. Ullmann, A. Dayan (2007) 1D plane numerical model for boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE). International Journal of Heat and Mass Transfer, Volume 50, Issues 23–24 Pages 4780-4795 doi: 10.1016/j.ijheatmasstransfer.2007.03.016

  • J. Casal, J. Arnaldos, H. Montiel, E. Planas-Cuchi, and J. A. Vílchez, “Modeling And Understanding BLEVEs”, The Handbook of Hazardous Materials Spills Technology, M. Fingas, ed., 2001

  • Venart, J. E. S., “Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosions (BLEVE): Possible failure Mechanisms,” Very Large Scale Fires, ASTM STP 1336, N.R. Keltner, N. J. Alvares, and S. J. Grayson, Eds. American Society for Testing and Materials, 1998

Comments

ai_vin

In May five CP Rail tank cars jumped the tracks just outside of Jansen, Saskatchewan, spilling more than 91,000 litres of crude oil. The month before that, a similar derailment near White River, Ontario, resulted in a 63,000-litre oil spill.

It's a fact of oil transport: Railcars derail, pipelines leak, and tankers run aground - and if nothing goes wrong and the oil gets where we want it to go it ends up in the air as more CO2 so we still have to deal with the effects of climate change! Not much of an improvement is it?

Engineer-Poet

The great thing about electrons is that they don't make a persistent, nasty mess if you spill them.

ai_vin

It would be shocking if they did.

yoatmon

And the mentally incapacitated ICE proponents actually worry that the batteries in EVs could catch fire!

Engineer-Poet

You think that's bad, yoatmon, read up about the paranoia that certain interests whipped up about steam heat back in the days when it was just being rolled out.  They actually described the product of an atmospheric-pressure boiler as "red-hot steam".

ai_vin

Yeah, but back then "red-hot steam" wasn't the only problem with steam locomotives: It was well known that if you traveled faster than 50mph the wind would suck the air out of your lungs and you'd die!

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