The train’s owners said they believed brake failure was to blame. ‘‘Somehow those brakes were released, and that’s what is going to be investigated,’’ Joe McGonigle, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway’s vice president of marketing, told The Associated Press on Sunday.
Officials were also looking at a locomotive blaze on the same train a few hours before the derailment. Ross also said the locomotive’s black box has been recovered, and investigators were looking into whether the air brakes or the hand break malfunctioned.
Meanwhile, crews were working to contain 100,000 liters (27,000 gallons) of light crude that spilled from the tankers and made its way into nearby waterways. There were fears it could flow into the St. Lawrence River all the way to Quebec City.
Quebec’s Environment Ministry Spokesman Eric Cardinal said officials remained hopeful they could contain more than 85 per cent of the spill.
Local fire chief Denis Lauzon said firefighters in a nearby community were called to a locomotive blaze on the same train a few hours before the derailment. Lauzon said he could not provide additional details about that fire since it was in another jurisdiction. McGonigle confirmed that a fire was reported after the first engineer secured the train and went to a local hotel.
‘‘We know that one of our employees from our engineering department showed up at the same time to assist the fire department. Exactly what they did is being investigated so the engineer wasn’t the last man to touch that train, we know that, but we’re not sure what happened,’’ McGonigle said.
McGonigle said there was no reason to suspect any criminal or terror-related activity.
The growing number of trains transporting crude oil in Canada and the United States had raised concerns of a major disaster. Harper, who has been pushing the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, has said railroad transit is more ‘‘environmentally challenging’’ than pipelines.
The train’s oil was being transported from North Dakota’s Bakken oil region to a refinery in New Brunswick on Canada’s East Coast. Because of limited pipeline capacity in the Bakken region and in Canada, oil producers are increasingly using railroads to transport oil to refineries.
The Canadian Railway Association recently estimated that as many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil will be shipped on Canada’s tracks this year — up from 500 carloads in 2009. The Quebec disaster is the fourth freight train accident in Canada under investigation involving crude oil shipments since the beginning of the year.
Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, has predicted such a catastrophe ever since crude began leaving the North Dakota by rail in 2008.
‘‘I think anybody could have foreseen this,’’ said Schafer. ‘‘It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen and it happened.’’
Associated Press writers Gillies and Charmaine Noronha contributed from Toronto. James MacPherson contributed from Bismarck, North Dakota.