My FDL
User Picture

Over Easy: Chemical Weapons in the War on Protest

By: msmolly

Chemical weapon symbolTear gas is technically banned for use in warfare as a chemical weapon. But as the Washington Post (and other publications) point out, Ferguson police shoot it at protesters rather freely.

From Wikipedia

Tear gas, formally known as a lachrymatory agent or lachrymator (from lacrima meaning ‘tear’ in Latin), is a chemical weapon that stimulates the corneal nerves in the eyes to cause tears, pain, vomiting, and even blindness. Common lachrymators include pepper spray (OC gas), CS gas, CR gas, CN gas (phenacyl chloride), nonivamide, bromoacetone, xylyl bromide, syn-propanethial-S-oxide (from onions), and Mace (a branded mixture).

Lachrymatory agents are commonly used for riot control. Their use as chemical warfare agents is prohibited by various international treaties. [My emphasis]

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention doesn’t apply to domestic law enforcement.

Because the U.S. was concerned that the C.W. Convention could be interpreted to prohibit lethal injection, we were a vocal supporter of this exemption (my emphasis below):

1. ‘Chemical Weapons’ means the following, together or separately:
(a) Toxic chemicals and their precursors, except where intended for purposes not prohibited under this Convention, as long as the types and quantities are consistent with such purposes;

9. ‘Purposes Not Prohibited Under this Convention’s if means:
[snip]
(d) Law enforcement including domestic riot control purposes.

The most common lacrimator used for riot control is a compound called 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, or CS, which is a powder that when mixed with smoke creates an airborne agent with frightening, although not usually lethal, results. But do notice the foregoing Wikipedia list of common lachrymators also includes pepper spray, which Lt. John Pike used as a chemical weapon against peaceful protestors at U. C. Davis in 2011.

Why Isn’t Tear Gas Illegal?

When deployed in open spaces, the effects of tear gas are indeed temporary. Victims may experience crying, uncontrollable blinking, burning in the throat, sneezing, coughing, retching, and sometimes temporary blindness—but all that should subside within hours. In enclosed spaces, however, the chemical agent can have much more serious effects.

According to Sven-Eric Jordt, a Duke University scientist who researches tear gas, speaking with Vox’s Sarah Kliff,

The way these gases work, and this is what we do research on, is that they activate pain receptors — the pain sensing nerves in our body. The cornea is densely covered with these receptors. When tear gas activates these pain receptors, that leads to body reflexes like profuse tear secretion and a muscle cramp in the eyelid that causes them to close. These are all protective responses that the body has to pain, and with the gas they become extremely exaggerated.

There are situations where this can be very dangerous or lethal. If somebody has asthma, for example, or a hypersensitivity or an airwave disease that can be very dangerous.

[snip]

Tear gas can also lead to profuse mucus production, and that can lead to the feeling of suffocation. That’s especially true if it’s used in closed environments, like what you saw in Cairo. That’s not the case here in Ferguson.

Jordt concludes,

I’m very concerned that, as use has increased, tear gas has been normalized. The attitude now is like, this is safe and we can use it as much as we want.

Regardless of the lengths to which law enforcement will go to justify it, the fact remains that police in the United States – in many cases with inadequate oversight or control – use a chemical banned for use in war, in a domestic “war” on protesters.

And courtesy of Vox, here’s a look at how we would cover events in Ferguson if they happened in another country (satire, maybe, but…).

 

Thursday Watercooler

By: Kit OConnell Thursday August 21, 2014 7:27 pm

 

A lone cyclist approaches the many spires of the Temple of Transition as dust blows

Scientists document the long-term psychological effects of Burning Man.

Tonight, the Firedoglake Watercooler is in solidarity with Block the Boat, the recent record-breaking boat blockade for Gaza that prevented an Israeli ship from unloading in the Port of Oakland. Protesters kept the ship from unloading for almost four days, and inspired upcoming solidarity actions in other cities.

The protesters gathered Sunday at the port to stop the ship from docking and unloading, but it docked at the port Sunday evening The demonstration was under the auspices of the Block the Boat coalition organized by the San Francisco-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center.

Unionized dockworkers at the port on Sunday honored the picket line and refused to unload the ship.

‘Workers honored our picket and stood on the side of justice, as they historically have,’ the center said in a statement on its website. ‘Oakland said no to Zionism and blocked the boat for an entire weekend. This is the first time in history that this has happened. Israeli apartheid is falling one port at a time.’

‘Zim has undoubtedly suffered significant economic losses, and we have set a powerful precedent for what international solidarity with Palestine, through boycott, divestment and sanctions, can look like,’ Reem Assil of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, said.

Similar actions are expected to take place at ports in Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., this week and later in Vancouver.

More information on the union perspective is available in this article from Working In These Times.

Thousands are preparing to attend Burning Man, the massive counterculture art festival in Nevada’s Black Rock desert, next week. Though much in the media has been made of the multimillionaires who attend Burning Man, many people of more modest means continue to find meaning in the week long event and it’s more inexpensive regional alternatives. A recent article by Eric W. Dolan, writing on Psypost, summarizes a recent study showing that attending Burning Man alters your emotional responses.

‘What first drew me to study emotion regulation at Burning Man is that Burning Man has very explicit values (the ten principles of Burning Man) and one of them is radical self-expression,’ [lead author Kateri] McRae explained. ‘I thought it would be really interesting to see how that explicit value impacted the types of emotion regulation that people use when they’re there. And indeed, we find that people inhibit their emotional expression less often when they’re at Burning Man than typically at home.’

For their study, the researchers surveyed 16,227 individuals at Burning Man over the course of four years to investigate two emotional regulation strategies, expressive suppression and cognitive reappraisal.

Going to Burning Man made individuals less likely to inhibit the expression of both positive and negative emotions. Those at Burning Man were more open about their emotions in general, but were more likely to feel uninhibited about expressing positive emotions rather than negative ones. McRae and her colleagues found decreases in the suppression of positive emotion were considerably stronger than the decreases in the suppression of negative emotion.

‘What was most surprising to us was that this decreased inhibition was not global,’ McRae told PsyPost. ‘In other words, people aren’t “letting loose” in every sense when they are at Burning Man (which is one stereotype that some people hold about the event). In fact, people use an emotion regulation strategy called reappraisal MORE often when they’re there.’

‘So the paradox of Burning Man is that people are more open, less inhibited when expressing their emotions, but also more thoughtful in terms of reframing, reconsidering or reevaluating their emotions (which is what reappraisal entails).’

When it comes to rich attendees I don’t think an event that encourages the wealthy to give away more of their money is necessarily a bad thing — but too many probably come more to gawk than to share (I seriously doubt Grover Norquist will grok the gift economy this year). My experiences of radical self-expression within the Burning Man community (largely at Texas regional events) have inspired much of my activism — though sadly Burning Man’s freedom itself is now increasingly threatened by overzealous police. I hope the event survives, and more importantly, that the community finds ways to make the experience more accessible to others.

Housekeeping notes:

  • Please review our About Us page if you need a refresher on site rules, and
  • We encourage you to use our flag system — if you see an abusive comment, user or post, please flag it rather than replying. We review every flag and take the best action available to us.
  • If you have questions or concerns about Firedoglake-specific issues, please limit their discussion to Watercooler posts rather than starting new posts or making off-topic comments in others. But remember,
  • Firedoglake editors and staff are not allowed to comment on any moderation decisions.

The Watercooler is an open conversation. Ask questions, share links and your thoughts.

Patrick Cockburn: How to Ensure a Thriving Caliphate

By: Tom Engelhardt Saturday July 23, 2011 7:00 am

Think of the new “caliphate” of the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s gift to the world (with a helping hand from the Saudis and other financiers of extremism in the Persian Gulf).  How strange that they get so little credit for its rise, for the fact that the outlines of the Middle East, as set up by Europe’s colonial powers in the wake of World War I, are being swept aside in a tide of blood.

Had George and Dick not decided on their “cakewalk” in Iraq, had they not raised the specter of nuclear destruction and claimed that Saddam Hussein’s regime was somehow linked to al-Qaeda and so to the 9/11 attacks, had they not sent tens of thousands of American troops into a burning, looted Baghdad (“stuff happens”), disbanded the Iraqi army, built military bases all over that country, and generally indulged their geopolitical fantasies about dominating the oil heartlands of the planet for eternity, ISIS would have been an unlikely possibility, no matter the ethnic and religious tensions in the region.  They essentially launched the drive that broke state power there and created the kind of vacuum that a movement like ISIS was so horrifically well suited to fill.

All in all, it’s a remarkable accomplishment to look back on.  In September 2001, when George and Dick launched their “Global War on Terror” to wipe out — so they then claimed — “terrorist networks” in up to 60 countries, or as they preferred to put it, “drain the swamp,” there were scattered bands of jihadis globally, while al-Qaeda had a couple of camps in Afghanistan and a sprinkling of supporters elsewhere.  Today, in the wake of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and an air power intervention in Libya, after years of drone (and non-drone) bombing campaigns across the Greater Middle East, jihadist groups are thriving in Yemen and Pakistan, spreading through Africa (along with the U.S. military), and ISIS has taken significant parts of Iraq and Syria right up to the Lebanese border for its own bailiwick and is still expanding murderously, despite a renewed American bombing campaign that may only strengthen that movement in the long run.

Has anyone covered this nightmare better than the world’s least embedded reporter, Patrick Cockburn of the British Independent?  Not for my money.  He’s had the canniest, clearest-eyed view of developments in the region for years now.  As it happens, when he publishes a new book on the Middle East (the last time was 2008), he makes one of his rare appearances at TomDispatch. This month, his latest must-read work, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, is out. Today, this website has an excerpt from its first chapter on why the war on terror was such a failure (and why, if Washington was insistent on invading someplace, it probably should have chosen Saudi Arabia).  It includes a special introductory section written just for TomDispatch. Thanks go to his publisher, OR BooksTom

Why Washington’s War on Terror Failed 
The Underrated Saudi Connection 
By Patrick Cockburn

[This essay is excerpted from the first chapter of Patrick Cockburn’s new book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprisingwith special thanks to his publisher, OR Books.  The first section is a new introduction written for TomDispatch.]

There are extraordinary elements in the present U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria that are attracting surprisingly little attention. In Iraq, the U.S. is carrying out air strikes and sending in advisers and trainers to help beat back the advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (better known as ISIS) on the Kurdish capital, Erbil. The U.S. would presumably do the same if ISIS surrounds or attacks Baghdad. But in Syria, Washington’s policy is the exact opposite: there the main opponent of ISIS is the Syrian government and the Syrian Kurds in their northern enclaves. Both are under attack from ISIS, which has taken about a third of the country, including most of its oil and gas production facilities.

But U.S., Western European, Saudi, and Arab Gulf policy is to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, which happens to be the policy of ISIS and other jihadis in Syria. If Assad goes, then ISIS will be the beneficiary, since it is either defeating or absorbing the rest of the Syrian armed opposition. There is a pretense in Washington and elsewhere that there exists a “moderate” Syrian opposition being helped by the U.S., Qatar, Turkey, and the Saudis.  It is, however, weak and getting more so by the day. Soon the new caliphate may stretch from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean and the only force that can possibly stop this from happening is the Syrian army.

Microsoft Leaves ALEC: Horsetrading & The Price to Pay

By: anotherquestion Wednesday August 20, 2014 5:53 pm
A Microsoft sign outside of an office building

What’s behind Microsoft’s departure from ALEC?

Some people describe watching politics as similar to watching sausage being made. Sometimes the exchange is complex such as the story, true or not, that Frank Sinatra sang eight nights straight at a Mafia-owned club to pay for actions by John and Robert Kennedy after they were in the White House.

Some good news today is that Microsoft is leaving ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate funded group that supports many right-wing people in the US Congress and in state legislatures, “reportedly because of the group’s lobbying against renewable energy.” It’s a very good thing that Microsoft is joining the many corporations that left ALEC. It is another very good thing that Microsoft may be leaving to avoid association with lobbying against renewable energy.

Is there any connection to another story today? President Obama may soon decide on executive action regarding “a rule allowing spouses of H-1B visa holders, now barred from working in the U.S., to get jobs.” The H-1B high skill guestworker visa allows employers to hire non-citizens for skilled work often in fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Often the spouses would like to work, too, and might have comparable skills. H-1B visas are to Microsoft and other technology companies what fuel prices are to airlines.  Remember that these visas are tied to the employer with no automatic path to citizenship so H-1B visa employees are highly dependent on the employer.

Hiring spouses of H-1B visa holders will further enhance corrupt spousal hiring practices which frequently benefit higher income employees, but rarely benefit low income employees. For example, a university hires a new faculty member under an H-1B visa and uses the spousal hiring policy as a further perquisite. The spouse may never have qualifications to become faculty and may be taking a job away from  other non-tenure staff. I don’t hear of spousal hiring that benefits janitors and food service workers.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform is advertised to accommodate mothers and young children, but all proposals for Comprehensive Immigration Reform offer large increases in the number of H-1B visas corporations can receive to hire non-citizens. President Obama and the Democrats in the US Congress are very much invested in passing the parts of immigration reform that liberalize H-1B visa restrictions. I receive letters from my US Senator justifying H-1B liberalization because the US Dept. of Commerce claims that US corporations are still having trouble hiring enough skilled workers even in this economy. By contrast, US Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) had a forum held via conference call in May with some real experts about the effects of H-1B visas on the US STEM job market. Senator Sessions followed up with a floor speech in July pointing to the hypocrisy when Bill Gates coauthored an Op-Ed in the New York Times recommending removal of all numeric limits on H-1B visas while at the same time Microsoft is in the process of laying off 18,000 skilled workers. You did not hear about this speech on the evening news did you, among all the other immigration news at the time?

So, August is probably a convenient time for President Obama to make this decision about H-1B spouses. We are wondering whether a Wall Street lawyer can calm decades of racial injustice in Ferguson, Missouri in time for the fall TV line-up. The timing is so much better than a Friday News Dump.

Court: Key Environmental Law Doesn’t Apply to Part of Enbridge Keystone XL “Clone”

By: Steve Horn Tuesday August 19, 2014 6:06 pm
A judge's gavel

A judge just ruled federal law doesn’t apply to this pipeline firm.

U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ruled that Enbridge’s 600-mile-long Flanagan South Pipeline, a Keystone XL “clone,” is legally cleared to proceed opening for business in October.

Approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via a controversial regulatory mechanism called Nationwide Permit 12 (NWP 12), Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson, an Obama-appointed judge, ruled NWP 12 was not a federal government “action.” Thus, Brown posited that Enbridge did not need to use the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulatory process and NWP12 was up to snuff.

The case pitted the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) against the Army Corps of Engineers and Enbridge and has lasted for just over a year, with the initial complaint filed on August 13, 2013 (Case #: 1:13-cv-01239-KBJ).

Sierra Club and NWF submitted the recent precedent-setting Delaware Riverkeeper v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) case as supplemental authority for Sierra Club v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the day that decision was handed down.

But Jackson brushed it aside, saying it doesn’t apply to Flanagan South, despite the fact that the Delaware Riverkeeper v. FERC decision said that a continuous pipeline project cannot be segmented into multiple parts to avoid a comprehensive NEPA review.

Although Enbridge will operate this project as a single pipeline, Flanagan South was broken up into thousands of “single and complete” projects by the Army Corps of Engineers. This helped Enbridge skirt the requirement of a more comprehensive and public-facing NEPA review, which involves public hearings and a public comment period.

“Here, not only was there no NEPA analysis of this massive project, there was never any public notice or opportunity for involvement before it was constructed across four states,” Sierra Club attorney for the case, Doug Hayes, told DeSmogBlog. “The entire thing was permitted behind closed doors.”

For all intents and purposes, then, Flanagan South is a fait accompli and tar sands diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) will begin pumping through it as summer turns to fall.

Private Company, Hands-Off Approach

At 48-pages, Jackson’s ruling centers around a key central argument: Enbridge is a private company and Congress has never given executive agencies the green light to regulate domestic oil pipelines.

“Congress has not authorized the federal government to oversee the construction of private domestic oil pipelines; consequently, Enbridge has undertaken to build the planned [Flanagan South] Pipeline largely on its own, primarily by securing easements from the landowners who own the property over which the pipeline will operate,” wrote Jackson.

Judge Jackson said that a laissez-faire governmental approach to authorizing pipelines is appropriate, according to her reading of the law on the books.

“[T]he gist of the Court’s conclusion is that Plaintiffs are wrong to insist that any federal agency had an obligation under NEPA or any other statute to conduct an environmental review of the impact of the entire [Flanagan South] Pipeline before Enbridge broke ground on the project,” she opined.

“Connected Action” Doctrine

Another key legal precedent discussed in Jackson’s ruling was Delaware Riverkeeper v. FERC, covered by DeSmogBlog in June.

She weighed the merits of the “connected action” doctrine as applied to a lack ofNEPA review for Flanagan South, writing it does not apply to the pipeline because the Army Corps of Engineers has no obligation to do a NEPA review in this case.

“In [Delaware Riverkeeper v. FERC] the connected actions rule applied because the courts were required to assess whether the agencies had improperly limited the scope of the review of actions within their own jurisdiction—a determination that is fundamentally different from the question Plaintiffs present here, i.e., whether [NEPA] must be expanded to include an environmental review of actions completely outside the agencies’ purview,” Jackson wrote.

Army Corps Abusing NWP 12?

Hayes told DeSmogBlog back in November that the Army Corps of Engineers’ intricate involvement in permitting massive tar sands pipeline projects is at the root of the problem.

“The Corps is abusing the nationwide permit program. Nationwide permits were intended to permit categories of projects with truly minimal impacts, not tar sands oil pipelines crossing several states,” said Hayes. “What the Corps is doing is artificially dividing up these massive pipelines, treating them as thousands of individual projects to avoid NEPA compliance.”

Congress Passed NEPA in 1969

The greatest irony of Jackson’s decision is that Congress passed NEPA — known by legal scholars as the “environmental Magna Carta“ — in 1969, and it was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970.

Bunker Mentalities, Security, and Time

By: cassiodorus
A long line of riot police with shields, in front an officer with a combat shotgun

It’s about the powerful dominating the weak.

Everyone, I think you’re going to see more of the bunker mentality in global politics in the future, of which the to-do in Gaza and the to-do in Ferguson, Missouri are mere instances.

So what’s it all about?

It’s about racism, to be sure — but there’s also an even wider mentality to be engaged here, which I hope to explore in this diary. Masaccio’s piece, frontpaged at Firedoglake, has an interesting point: it’s about domination, domination of the few over the many. The piece quotes from Michel Foucault’s classic “Discipline and Punish” and then discusses the topical matter of who gets to discipline and punish and who gets to be disciplined and punished:

This is a brilliant explanation of the reasons for the difference between the treatment of known scofflaw Cliven Bundy and Michael Brown, and many other dead Black Americans. The point of the delinquency is to mark the accused as not human, not a decent person, not a person entitled to any rights, not a citizen, not one of us.

– and —

The people who get to decide what is normal are the rich and powerful. They use their control over government to establish the line between acceptable delinquency and unacceptable delinquency and illegalities.

So arming cops to the point at which they shoot people down and arrest journalists in an air of total impunity has reached the level of scandal in America today. What is our glorious Congress, of the low opinion poll approval ratings, doing about all this? Well, some of them are going on AIPAC junkets in Israel, where they’ll probably find out if it’s kewl with the Israelis if they send US troops to Iraq or something like that. Yeah, Israel, that’s the ticket. Everyone’s favorite small-nation-sized bunker, with the requisite bunker mentality to boot. And doubling down on Iraq. Very kewl.

One of the primary conservative efforts in this era of last-gasp capitalism is the general effort to feed the bunker mentality among those with power, specifically money-power and weapon-power. In what used to be called the “society of the spectacle,” our elites cling to spectacular forms of what they think is “security” — wall off the masses, and stockpile weapons and ammunition. (It should be added here that, as regards our Congress, the Israelis are ahead of the game in the category of wall-building.)

As technology races ever forward, you better be sure you have your copies of the newest weapons, and to be sure to use them, too! This is no doubt the reigning attitude at the Pentagon, and at other places where “security” is the fetish of participants in the bunker mentality.

As I have suggested before, this is a conservative age, and one hallmark of a conservative age is the redundant reinforcement of hegemonic power out of a fear of the future. It doesn’t matter, then, that the next war in Africa will generate a bunch of blowback — there’s money involved, so Americans carry on with the existing obsessions — guns, money, power.

Never mind that such an approach doesn’t make its participants more secure — just look at the lives of those who are the victims of “security.” You wouldn’t want to be one of them, would you? The real future is sacrificed in bunker mentality concepts of “security,” in the sense in which George W. Bush said “History, I don’t know, we’ll all be dead” when asked by Bob Woodward about his place in history. Participants in the bunker mentality, then, have a problem with time.

The most curious combination of “security” and bunker mentality futurism has got to be the Pentagon’s strategies for climate change. Compound disaster through climate change is a significant medium-term concern, and ultimate solutions to climate change are also medium- and long-term. However, all of the scientifically-informed prognostications suggest that we begin action (which means “stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere at a rate of 2.3 parts per million per year) soon. Climate change has thus attracted the Pentagon’s attention as prompting a need for short-term action, while at the same time exposing the utter confusion about the future to be expected from participants in the bunker mentality.

It’s been public knowledge since 2004 that they’ve had a plan for climate change. Here’s the plan, in brief, as the editors of the Monthly Review explained it:

Defective X-Ray Pornscanners: You Can See Sideboobs But Not Sidearms

By: spocko Tuesday December 21, 2010 7:18 pm

Wired has a story today about a team of security researchers demonstrated how people can slip weapons and explosives past TSA’s Rapiscan full-body X-ray scanners.

The article talks about blogger Jonathan Corbett who published a YouTube video two years ago showing some of these same failings which the TSA pooh-poohed. Now these researchers from the University of California at San Diego, the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins are showing the same things and more.

Corbett has a court case against the TSA which is continuing and you can donate to it here at TSA Out of My Pants. I hope he wins, in a way he was already successful because those scanners are no longer used by the TSA. But as one the the taxpayers who was conned out of one BILLION dollars for a defective product, I want my money back!

How do we get that money back? Qui tam lawsuits.  From the Legal Information Institute.

In a qui tam action, a private party called a relator brings an action on the government’s behalf. The government, not the relator, is considered the real plaintiff. If the government succeeds, the relator receives a share of the award. Also called a popular action.

For example, the federal False Claims Act authorizes qui tam actions against parties who have defrauded the federal government. 31 U.S.C. § 3279 et seq. If successful, a relator in a False Claims Act qui tam action may receive up to 30% of the government’s award.

Now I think this is a perfect opportunity for this kind of case.  I hope that Jonathan Corbett files one. It’s time a whistleblower flip the narrative and make bank on their important work. From legal discovery we could learn a lot, like  ”What did Chertoff know and when did he know it?”  Two years ago the incompetence of the company could be hidden by national security concerns, but now the product isn’t used anymore in airports. This company, and Chertoff, defrauded the federal government. We paid for a defective product. Shouldn’t we get our money back?

Rapidscan Systems will still try to evoke national security and not divulge “methods and practices” on the Rapidscan 1000, but we will say the issue is moot since it is not used by the TSA anymore. I’m sure there are 17 good reasons it’s not feasible to bring this case, but for 30% of a billion dollars those reasons might be overcome, don’t you think?

Who’s Using the Defective Rapidscanners Now? 

One of the points they make in the Wired article is that these scanners are still being sold to courthouses, jails, and other government security checkpoints around the country. I want to take steps to de-militarize our police, but I’m  sympathetic to their concerns that it’s scary out there with the NRA pushing guns everywhere all the time.

Maybe  these cities can also sue to get their money back for buying defective products.

Can We Trade In Our Tanks?

Lac-Mégantic Disaster Report Issued

By: KateCA Wednesday August 20, 2014 12:29 pm
Flames rise above Lac-Mégantic after the derailment

A report reveals new facts about the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

On July 6, 2013, a freight train parked with the engine running and left unattended at Nantes, Quebec began rolling, pulling 72 tank cars carrying Bakken crude, a highly flammable oil, behind it. All cars were the old dangerous DOT-111A/CTC-111A type which have a capacity of 30,000 gallons of oil each.

That something was wrong with the locomotive was obvious to people driving by at 11:45 that night. They saw a dark diesel smoke cloud and sparks coming from the locomotive’s exhaust as it sat there on the track. Fire Departments from Nantes and near-by Lac-Mégantic were called by a witness, quickly responded, shut off the train engine and doused the fire. They also called the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), owner of the train. MMA sent in a few employees who determined that the train was ok and departed, leaving the train unattended once again.

Soon afterward, around 1:00 am EST, the train began rolling, gathering momentum as it headed down a 1.2% grade toward the town of Lac-Megantic, almost 7.2 miles down track. About 15 minutes later, right in the heart of Lac-Mégantic, 63 tank cars holding Bakken’s finest derailed, 59 of them began spurting oil, and the conflagration began. Oil streamed into storm sewers—resulting in explosions of towers of flame from manholes and even chimneys up into the black night—and into the nearby river, setting it on fire.

In the aftermath, 47 people were determined to be dead or missing. 42 bodies were found. Five others were never found and are presumed to have been vaporized by the conflagration. 40 buildings, including the town library and other historic structures, were destroyed, along with legal documents such as the wills of a few of the victims. By the end of the week, all Lac-Mégantic residents had been allowed to return to their homes, though some 20 families were unable to, their homes having been destroyed by the fires. MMA filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the month following the disaster and was finally sold in January of this year.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) has released its comprehensive report on what happened that night in Nantes and Lac-Mégantic. The 190-page report includes photographs with key details highlighted by arrows or circles, charts and timelines. Particular attention is devoted to the brake systems and their use (or not) that night. The lead locomotive was examined, track inspected, DOT-111 cars and the “Dangerous goods” they were carrying assessed, regulations and enforcement reviewed.  (Adobe version of the report is here.)

Page 129 of the report contains the Findings. TSB noted 18 specific factors that led to the conflagration in Lac-Mégantic. First, the train was left “on a descending grade” and with a locomotive “not in proper operating condition.” Several specific points pertain to the brakes, which were “insufficient to hold the train without the [locomotive’s] additional braking force” and which hadn’t been tested to ensure the brakes would actually stop all movement. Since no other locomotive was started while the train sat at Nantes, “no air pressure was provided to the independent brakes.” Moreover, the lead locomotive wasn’t wired for reset safety controls, and so forth.

And those DOT-111 tank cars? Once derailed, they “had large breaches, which rapidly released vast quantities of highly volatile petroleum crude oil, which ignited, creating large fireballs and a pool fire.”

MMA was criticized for lack of training and supervision of appropriate staff, poor risk management, and inadequate safety management. Transport Canada also came under fire for not providing “adequate regulatory oversight to ensure the associated risks were addressed,” for failure to ensure that “recurring deficiencies” at MMA were being addressed and corrected, and for conducting an insufficient number of audits which also had limited scope.

So there you have it, in a nutshell. Forty-seven victims of a horrendous oil fire in a small Canadian town which had its heart consumed by intense flames that spread from poorly designed and maintained oil tank cars carrying very volatile fuel, tugged along by a locomotive which had unaddressed problems and a braking system seemingly near tatters. Inadequate regulations and lack of rigorous oversight and enforcement complete this tragic picture.

Aerial view of Lac-Mégantic burning by Sûreté du Québec released under a Creative Commons Share Alike license.