Canadian Counter Terrorism, the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, and the World's Deadliest Chemical
As a crush of spectators, international dignitaries, top athletes, and the world’s media descend upon Vancouver for the Olympics this winter, a chlorine facility at the base of the Second Narrows Crossing will temporarily stop production. The timing for the closure could not be better. But it will be brief.
By Megan Stewart
A 52-year-old industrial chemical plant on the North Shore will close for at least four weeks as Vancouver’s population swells by tens of thousands during the 2010 Games. This winter, Canexus Chemicals Canada will stop production, reducing the chlorine and caustic soda shipped off-site.
"Chemical warfare is one of the elements that we prepare for and plan for," said Corporal Bert Paquet, a spokesperson for the Integrated Security Unit (ISU), the policing branch of the Vancouver Olympic Committee (VANOC).
"It would be irresponsible for us not to consider all the possibilities and risks involved and obviously chemical is a big part of our security preparation.”
Canexus management will not specify when the facility will close or if it will even shutdown for one day during the Games. Management also denies the 30- to 40-day closure is deliberately timed to coincide with the largest security risk ever seen in Vancouver. However, meeting minutes from the North Shore Community Advisory Panel show that VANOC representatives have met with Canexus management to discuss Olympic safety concerns.
While the chlorine facility presents one concern, transportation experts argue the risks of shipping liquidized chlorine through densely populated urban areas by rail supersede the dangers of the plant itself.
“Because of the nature of the chemicals and the accessibility of the chemicals, 90-ton tank cars are like elephants tip-toeing through the tulips,” said Fred Millar. Millar is a hazardous materials transportation security consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former staffer at the environmental lobby group, Friends of the Earth.
Millar said he believes chlorine would make a formidable terrorism target and was concerned enough about its proximity to Vancouver’s downtown and 2010 event sites to contact the Vancouver Observer. This is the first in a series of articles that will look at issues surrounding Canexus and chlorine.
Single biggest terrorist threat?
The Maplewood Advisory Committee has criticized the Vancouver Port Authority (now the Port Metro Vancouver) in 2007 for extending their lease with Canexus until 2032. The extension hinges on the upgrades currently underway and permits Canexus to manufacture enough chlorine to fill one additional rail car each day, bringing the average to six.
“The idea of having a chlorine plant in the middle of a dense residential community is ridiculous enough, and is further enhanced by the fact that the plant is in a high risk earthquake zone,” wrote co-chairs Tom Young and John Walkley.
“This is of particular concern to the railcar shipment of chlorine. The probability of a terrorist action against a railcar is also far greater than one against the plant itself. The US Transport Security Administration says that unguarded railcars filled with toxic chemicals such as chlorine are the single biggest terrorist threat related to the nation’s railroads.”
Canexus ranks among North America’s largest chlor-alkali producers and is one of the country's 500 largest companies. It manufactures chlorine and other products essential to the pulp and paper industry as well as the household cleaners and plastics we use every day.
Previously part of the chemical division of Alberta oil giant, Nexen, Canexus produces an average annual 154,000 tonnes of chlorine. Following the upgrades and plant expansion, the North Shore facility could pump out nearly 200,000 tonnes of chlorine each year, equivalent to an estimated 2,400 rail cars.
Just how lethal?
Information from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory shows that the worst-case release from a 90-ton railcar could injure or kill 100,000 people. Classified as a TIH, or toxic by inhalation, chlorine gas is lethal at high concentrations and hazardous even as it disperses. The 90-ton rail cars that leave Canexus carry 82 metric tonnes (82,000 kilograms) of pressurized liquid chlorine, which evaporates into the highly hazardous gas.
Downtown Vancouver is less than 15 kilometers from Canexus, which is located on the waterfront to the east of the Second Narrows Crossing in North Vancouver. Rail lines leaving the facility travel across the Burrard Inlet and through residential neighbourhoods. The tracks pass through Vancouver near Gastown at the north end of Main Street and through East Vancouver, Burnaby and New Westminster.
Rail lines continue to Surrey, past a rail yard between the Pattullo and Port Mann bridges, and finally travel through White Rock before entering the U.S. at the Peace Arch border crossing.
Arthur Dungan, the president of the Virginia-based Chlorine Institute, an industry advocate and lobby group that includes Canexus as a member, said the worst-case scenarios from his institution err on the side of caution.
The Institute provides emergency responders with resources in the event of a catastrophic accident involving chlorine. Pamphlet 74, published by The Institute, shows how chlorine gas from a ruptured, 90-ton railcar would travel downwind as far as 64 km in a few minutes, with low-lying gas concentrating in lethal amounts closest to the leak.
Twenty-four km downwind, Pamphlet 74 predicts a chlorine gas concentration of 20 parts per million, a strength described as “the maximum airborne concentration” people can tolerate for up to one hour “without experiencing or developing life-threatening health effects.”
“At 20 parts-per-million for an hour, you’re going to be seriously impaired,” said Dungan. “Maybe not killed, but seriously impaired.” Dungan, however, said he doubts the chemical would be of any interest to would-be criminals. “You can determine, with not a lot of imagination, a terrorist attack putting a hole in a tank. That could happen. But there are plenty of things terrorists can do—why would they go to a rail car with chlorine?”
Protecting our healthy lifestyles?
Chlorine is one of the most hazardous gases found in nature and was used to poison thousands during the First World War. It travels out of North Vancouver at the average rate of five rail cars a day.
“A tank full of chlorine, if you’re going to blow something up, that’s going to be the sort of thing you’re going to go for,” said John Walkley, previously the co-chair of the Maplewood Advisory Committee, a group of residents living east of the Seymour River near the Canexus facilities. Walkley wishes the plant would be permanently closed on the North Shore and moved to an unpopulated area. He welcomed the temporary closure for the Olympics.
“I think it’s a sensible thing to do. The danger of the plant lies more in the transportation than in the manufacturing,” he said.
When a Canadian Pacific freight train derailed in suburban Toronto 30 years ago, 11 propane tanks rumbled off the tracks followed by 13 other cars carrying a combustible and toxic load that, once erupted, sent flames and gas flares more than 1,000 meters in to the air. A leaking chlorine car was identified as an extreme hazard and the gas was contained. The accident forced 218,000 residents out of their homes for five days and a newspaper declared the catastrophe “the Mississauga miracle” because there were no immediate deaths.
The derailment sparked amendments to the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. Added in 1992, Part 7 of the act requires all shippers to prepare and submit an Emergency Response Assistance Plan to Transport Canada, giving first responders and authorities the information they need to mitigate destruction and death.
Friends of the Earth and transportation security expert Millar petitioned Canexus for these details and in October 2007 and also advocated that the chemical facility move closer to the majority of their buyers in Texas. Canexus responded in March 2008, saying the company embraces the principles of responsible care from Canada’s Chemical Producers Association and is a members of the American Chemistry Council as well as the Chlorine Institute.
“Nevertheless, I don’t think I need to explain to you the integral role chlorine plays in ensuring that healthy lifestyles we enjoy in North America,” Marty Cove, a Canexus logistics manager responded. “As a chlorine producer, we must move our products to customers if we are to help to ensure the continuing health and safety of our communities.
“We regret that we are unable to provide you with any details pertaining to the routes, destinations, our dwell times of our chlorine shipments. We trust you understand that revealing any of this information would compromise the safety and security of our shipments.”
SmartRail, a Lower Mainland group that advocates for safe and efficient rail transportation, has made the same request.
Canexus will not make this information public.
This disturbs Phil Le Good, who sits on the White Rock municipal committee for transportation and infrastructure and is a past president of SmartRail.
“The community has a right to know what would occur if just one 90-ton rail car loaded with chlorine was to catastrophically rupture either from an accident or from a deliberate attack,” states a SmartRail letter to the Vancouver Port Authority (now the Metro Port Authority) dated to 2007 when Canexus was renegotiating the terms of its long-term lease with the port.
Le Good has the experience to make him particularly informed of the risks of chlorine production and transportation in urban areas. An appointed transportation committee member, Le Good is also a federally certified technician and supervises the inspection of industrial sites. For six years until 1998, he inspected the chlor-alkali facilities at Canexus.
Le Good stresses the vulnerability of Metro Vancouver during the Olympics. Like Millar of Friends of the Earth, he believes a gas as dangerous as chlorine could prove a verifiable and effective target for anyone wanting to create mass chaos.
More dangerous than a nuclear bomb?
Safety precautions at Canexus are taken extremely seriously, according to multiple members of the North Shore Community Advisory Panel, a group of municipal, environmental, residential and port representatives who hear from three industrial manufacturers, including Canexus.
Canexus has also received recognition from railway companies employed to ship its products. Canadian National (CN) granted Canexus its safe handling award for preventing a non-accidental releases (NAR) eight years out of the past decade.
The spokesperson for CN said companies do not receive the safe handling award if they have been responsible for the accidental release of their cargo.
“As a shipper … you’ve allowed something to escape. Even if it’s minor, a release is a release,” said Bryan Tucker, who would not give specifics regarding any NARs related to Canexus.
The plant manager of the Canexus facility in North Vancouver said human error can never be factored out. But Rick Denton expressed confidence in extensive safety precautions and emergency planning, including the additional fleet of specialized railcars that feature thicker insulation to lessen the risk of a release should the car leave the rails.
“You can ship nuclear weapons safely,” he said, making the point that even the most dangerous human-made cargo is transported with little incident.
SmartRail’s Phil Le Good considers the comparison disingenuous. He reasons that nuclear weapons are not transported by rail and are shipped under heightened security with the detonator and firing mechanisms removed, “like having a bullet without a gun.”
“This is something that brings instant fear to anyone. However, in a dishonest way [Denton] failed to mention that without their firing mechanisms they are far safer than chlorine,” Le Good wrote in an email. He said shipping pressurized chlorine in fact poses a greater potential risk than transporting nuclear material.
“Shipping nuclear weapons would be no different in terms of safety than shipping radioactive sources for medical or industrial radiography purposes. Yes, the weapons do have nuclear materials in them, but like any nuclear material, it is only hazardous when released but in this case there would be no mushroom cloud, but raw material spilled. Not much different than chlorine, only that chlorine is more dangerous in that it can spread much further than radiation from a nuclear weapon that has not been fired or exploded.”
Ultimately, Le Good said the comparison underscores the danger of shipping chlorine through urban areas. Even if shipments slow or stop during the Olympics, the risks will not disappear after the Games are over. One of the most dangerous chemicals in the world will continue to make its way across Vancouver and onward to points across the continent.
“How do you protect people?” asked Le Good.
With files from Chris Shaw.