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Canada Braces for Rising Death Toll in Oil Tanker Explosions

  • VOA News

Firefighters look at a train wagon on fire at Lac Megantic, Quebec, July 6, 2013.

Firefighters look at a train wagon on fire at Lac Megantic, Quebec, July 6, 2013.

Canadian authorities braced Monday for a rising death toll in the aftermath of massive oil tanker explosions. The blasts occurred early Saturday when a runaway train derailed in the middle of a town in Quebec.

Officials say five are dead, with another 40 people reported missing. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the community near the United States border on Sunday and said the devastation was immense.

"You know, it looks like a war zone here. A large part of the downtown has been destroyed, it's just, it is really just terrible. There has been loss of life, as we all know, and there is still many, many people missing, so there are many people here who are worried," said Harper.

The rail company that operated the train said it was parked outside Lac Megantic late Friday, and that the train's engineer set its brakes as he ended his work shift. But sometime later, the train started moving downhill, gathered speed and derailed on a curve.

All but one of the train's 73 tanker cars were carrying oil, and the accident has renewed a long-running debate over the safety of oil transport by rail.

Numerous rail companies in both Canada and the U.S. have sharply increased oil shipments as pipelines from Canadian fields and the U.S. state of North Dakota have been filled to capacity.

Oil shipments by rail are more expensive than by pipelines. But the recent surge in North American oil production has outpaced pipeline construction, forcing many producers to turn to trains to move their oil to refineries. Pipeline construction has proved controversial, with the U.S. government in the midst of a lengthy debate whether to approve a new pipeline from Canadian tar sand fields through the central part of the United States to a refinery along the Gulf of Mexico.