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July 17, 2013

GEORGE SMITH: Catastrophic danger lurks nearby, but don't take nail clippers on planes

George Smith

Just how secure are we? And are we focusing our protection in the right places?

Our June trip to Italy put us into the forceful grip of airport security in Boston, Rome, Florence and Amsterdam. At the latter airport, even though we'd gone through two security checks at the Florence airport prior to our arrival in Amsterdam where we were to board a plane for Boston, we had to go through four more security checkpoints. It took 90 minutes.

It takes a long time and a lot of security personnel to make sure we don't have more than a couple ounces of liquid or nail clippers in our possession.

A week after our return home, a train full of oil and propane derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, wiping out part of the town and killing more than 50 people. A few days later, I read in this newspaper a sobering report that the railway train was scheduled, the next day, to travel through Maine enroute to New Brunswick.

And the report grew more alarming paragraph by paragraph. Crude oil shipments by rail in Maine have skyrocketed from 25,000 barrels in 2011 to 5.2 million in 2012, and are on track to top 10 million this year.

"It's a hazardous material and volatile," reported Mark Kaiser of the Center for Energy Studies at Louisiana State University.

The report prompted me to wonder about the train that passes within five miles of my Mount Vernon home. So I went online to check out the maps. Sure enough, Pam Am Railways transports oil from Albany, N.Y., through Maine to New Brunswick, passing through Winthrop and Readfield, skirting the east side of Mount Vernon, and traveling on through Belgrade, Oakland and Waterville.

I have sat in my vehicle in Readfield Depot, within feet of that train as it passed through. Yikes!

And while it took what looked to be about 100 airport security staff to make sure I wasn't sneaking a bottle of water onto the plane, a grand total of one federal inspector is responsible for checking the safety of Maine's 1,154 miles of rail and the private companies that are running their explosive liquid and gas cargoes through our state. Yikes again!

Little did I know, while watching the oil boom boost the North Dakota economy as I hunt pheasants there each fall, that some of that oil would pass so close to my home enroute to Irving's St. John, New Brunswick, refinery.

The account went on to report that a 2006 study noted that Maine's rail tracks "would not support a 286,000-pound rail car." Triple Yikes!

And it only gets worse, and more alarming.

The old DOT-111 rail cars that transport all this oil through Maine -- 34,500 gallons per car -- are "inadequately designed" and "subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials" during a derailment, according to a National Transportation Safety Board.

I learned this from Bill Nemitz's column, which appeared the same day as the other report. Nemitz reported that of 19 rail cars carrying ethanol that went off the tracks in 2009 in Illinois, 16 ruptured and caught fire.

So let's tally all of this up. We've got tracks that don't support the rail cars. We've got rail cars that are subject to catastrophic loss. The number of cars carrying explosive cargo through Maine has skyrocketed. And these cars pass through the towns in this region, so close to homes, lakes, rivers and people, as to put all of us at risk. Catastrophic loss, indeed.

And as the days -- and the news stories -- continued, I kept thinking about those rail cars passing by my home. And wondering: just how much security, safety and money are we willing to continue to spend on fossil fuels? Shouldn't this latest tragedy demonstrate the wisdom of moving quickly to generate all of our energy in Maine from our own renewable resources: wind, water and the sun?

Is our frenzy to replace one fossil fuel, oil, with another, natural gas, the best strategy for the long haul? Or even the short haul? Will this blow up, literally, in our faces?

And shouldn't we also be redirecting the billions our government now spends spying on us from drones, monitoring our phone calls, and checking our activities through hidden cameras? Maybe a bit more spying on rail cars carrying hazardous, volatile, explosive materials through Maine on tracks that won't support their weight, might be appropriate and sensible?

Just asking.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.





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