Arrest Outside North Van Chlorine Facility Highlights Concerns About Dangerous Transports Through Greater Vancouver
Kent Lins took his camera and got into into his car.
Lins's goal was to find out if Canexus Chemical Plant had halted the transport of chlorine, a deadly chemical, during the Vancouver Olympic Games, or if the company was continuing to ship chlorine cargo through the city's tunnels, along its rails and beside its streets during that time and beyond it.
A friend had sent Lins a link to an article in the Vancouver Observer by Megan Stewart that tracked chlorine accidents over the last ten years. The article had upset him. It listed the following chlorine disasters:
1. On September 16, 2009, a truck carrying chlorine collided with a cargo truck in Clarines, Venezuela, causing the death of eight and creating respiratory illness for 326 others. The entire population was evacuated.
2. On January 6, 2005, in Graniteville, South Carolina, a railcar carrying chlorine gas slammed into a parked train on a side track.Fourteen cars and a moving train derailed, including three chlorine tank cars, one of which leaked a cloud of deadly green gas. Eight died at the scene, at least 525 were treated in emergency rooms and 71 were hospitalized for severe chlorine poisoning. Nearly 5,400 people living within a mile of the crash were evacuated for over a week.
3. On March 29, 2005, a truck carrying 35 tons of chlorine collided with another truck on the Beijing-Shanghai Expressway near Huai'an China, killing 28 and forcing the evacuation of 15,000.
4. On June 28, 2004, another railcar disaster occurred involving chlorine. Fourteen miles from San Antonio, Texas, 23 railcars jumped the tracks, chlorine leached out, killing three people, including the conductor, leaving 50 in the hospital. In San Antonio, the noxious cloud reached the zoo, "felling" eight people." 5,400 were evacuated from the area.
5. 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 erupted and sent flames and gas flaring more than 1,000 meters into the air. The accident forced 218,000 residents from 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 Seven 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.
The problem, Lins thought, was not Canexus, which has a clean record for safety. The problem was chlorine, which can be lethal.
Millions at Risk
Fred Millar is a consultant on Hazardous Materials Transportation and Homeland Security based in Washington, D.C. He suggests that Canexus produces chlorine primarily for shipment to facilities in Texas and is critical of transporting the chemical through highly concentrated urban areas. "This puts millions of people at risk," he said. "If there's a better candidate for closing a chemical facility in Canada, I don't know what it is. I don't know of one more dangerous."
"Vancouver, Burnaby and Surrey are the metropolitan areas that need to be educated that it is in their self-interest that issues about transporting chlorine need to be raised. In Holland, when cities protested the transportation of chlorine gas through their cities," Millar said, "the government spent 55 million Euros to relocate a plant. They closed the plant where it was operating and moved it to the facility that was using the chlorine, so they didn't have to transport it through Dutch cities. This is a perfect analogy for Burnaby, Surrey and Vancouver. Is this chlorine production system tolerable anymore?"
Holland is the only country to have stopped shipment of chlorine along its rails. Harry van den Tweel and Eelco Beukers explain in their report, The End of Chlorine Transportation in the Netherlands, that chlorine transportation through heavily populated areas "simply could not be justified to the public" after several chlorine accidents alarmed citizens. There were demonstrations against chlorine transports, but the protests were not very effective. "But they did succeed in making the ‘chlorine train’ a powerful symbol for the Dutch of the hazards of an industrialised society," Tweel and Beukers write. And in 2002, the Dutch government and chlorine manufacturer Akzo Nobel signed an agreement to bring large-scale chlorine transportation in the Netherlands to an end in 2006.
Vancouver Native Son
Lins, who was born and raised in Vancouver and has lived here most of his life, searched online and couldn't find a definite answer either to whether Canexus had actually stopped transporting chlorine during the Olympics. He decided to find out for himself.
The Canexus chemical plant sits just under the Second Narrows Bridge in North Vancouver.
Lins located the Canexus plant with Google Maps. He drove over the Second Narrows Bridge at about 12:13 a.m. and got out of his car outside the plant. He searched for an illuminated area where he could get a good shot.
"The road goes straight and there's a train crossing and a stop sign and it just continues on. I'm still thinking I'm on public land. The road has the same line markings as the road outside. There are no people standing guard, nothing. So I accidentally drive in there thinking it was public property. As soon as I get up to the Canexus sign I'm like oops. I can't believe how easy it was for me to make this mistake, just drive in. I'm thinking, 'anybody could do this.' That is a scary thought. Then I see a security guard coming towards me with his flashlight."
Lins thinks he was about 150 feet away from the tanks where chlorine may be stored and he was alarmed by how vulnerable the facility seemed. "If I was a terrorist or psychopath, I could have accelerated very fast from the public road and by the time I got to those tanks I could have been doing 120 MPH. And nothing would have been in between me and crashing into the tanks. There was a lack of security. It's an outrage."
He drove back out to the public land and continued down the street looking for a place to park. The signs said no parking so he went on down the street and turned around. He parked about 30 feet from the rail road crossing. He got out of his car and took a test shot.
As he zoomed in for a second shot, he heard the security guard ask what he was doing.
The two talked calmly, "discussing what was going on."
The guard asked him what his intention was in photographing and Lins said he read an article about Canexus shipping chlorine at night and was here to document it.
The guard asked if he was a protestor or if he was affiliated with a protest organization.
Lins said he wasn't. He said he hadn't been involved in a protest since he was a student at Capilano College twenty-five years ago when he had demonstrated against education spending cuts.
Then the guard asked if he was from the media and Lins said he wasn't.
Finally the guard asked if he was a "concerned citizen."
Lins said he was.
"They really don't want you here taking photographs of this area." The guard pointed at the plant grounds. "They don't want the signage in the photographs."
"That's not a problem for me, because I'm not interested in this area." Lins pointed to the factory. "I'm just here taking test shots of the train going by, because all I want is on the side of the car where it says "chlorine", that's all I'm looking for. Full disclosure. I've got nothing to hide."
"'Well we're on camera right now. And I'm on the radio with them and they want you to leave the area." Lins assumed the guard was referring to the RCMP.
"I'm cool with that, how about if I just go down the street there?" He pointed down to the next crossing area.
The guard said that would be fine.
"Then we just got into a casual conversation. I found out he's an ex-Ontario police officer. My impression was he was concerned about the safety of chlorine as well. That he thought it was a dangerous thing. My impression was that he was really seriously concerned about terrorists and the threat of an accident. While we were talking, I saw the train pull up to about 90 or 100 feet away from us. It moved forward 50 or 60 feet and it stopped and was waiting. I'm assuming it was waiting for me to leave. I saw four cars clearly marked chlorine."
"I figure I better get out of here or I'm going to miss this. I walk down to my car, and just then, a gray unmarked police car drives out. It was kind of unsettling. I'm a citizen taking photographs. I've never done this before. I get in my car and turn around. The police car follows me and then follows behind me, about half way down the block. His lights go on. I pull over."
Lins then put his hands on the steering wheel of his 1991 black VW station wagon Passat and waited.
The officer shone his flashlight in the car and asked Lins what he was doing there.
"I tell him that I'm taking photographs, because I read online that chlorine is being transported from this plant here through the city and I think it's wrong. It's really dangerous," Lins said. "And I want to take photographs and document the label of the chlorine on the cars as they go by."
"Why do you want to do that, are you a protester?" the officer asked. "Are you affiliated with any protest groups or are you media?"
Lins again said he wasn't.
"So you're just a concerned citizen?" the officer asked.
Lins said yes.
The officer asked for Lins's driver's license and registration.
He gave it to him. Lins then noticed that the train was passing.
"There it is and as he's talking to me asking these questions. The train is going by and I see chlorine and hydrochloric acid and I'm trying to count the cars as they're going by and answer him at the same time. I'm saying it out loud and counting out loud and pointing my finger and trying to count and talk to him. Five chlorine rail cars go by. Then the train stops. While he's questioning me, the train's stopped right there. Then he's at the back of the car and I think that I can get a great shot so I quickly open my door and say, 'hey, is it okay if I still take pictures?' I know it is, but I want to hear it from him. He says, 'Yeah go ahead I don't care what you do just stay in the car.'
"At that point, a van drives across my plane of view really slowly. It's a CN Rail Police Van. There are lights on the top of it. I'm sitting in my car and I can see the CN Rail Police officer get out of the van and go and talk to the officer in the gray unmarked police car."
"I grab my camera and I'm like nervous as hell, all excited, I've been taking really nice photos for years, I'm a good photographer, but I am so nervous and so unsettled by being questioned by these guys, that my photos turned out like shit. I take five or six photos with the windows of the car already fogged up.
"He comes back to the car after a few minutes and I open my door and he doesn't give me back my driver's license. I open my door and he says, "I need you to step out of the car." I'm like what, really, are you kidding me? He says no you need to step out of the car. He says you need to step out of the car and turn and face towards the car. You're under arrest." Lins learned he was being charged under the Federal Railway Safety Act with entering land on which a railway line was situated.
Top Concern for US Department of Homeland Security
The Maplewood Advisory Committee criticized the North Vancouver Port Authority in 2007 for extending its lease with Canexus until 2032. The extension hinges on the upgrades now apparently underway and permits Canexus to manufacture enough chlorine to fill one additional railcar each day, bringing the average to six, Megan Stewart reported last August in the Vancouver Observer.
"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 a high risk earthquake zone," wrote the committee's co-chairs, Tom Young and John Walkley. "This is of particular concern to the railcar shipment of chlorine. The possibility 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 to the nation's railroads."
Chlorine gas is an irritating, fast-acting and potentially fatal inhalant, and its use in water treatment and industrial manufacturing makes it one of the most used toxic chemicals.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said that an intentional attack on a chlorine storage tank in an urban area is a concern, listing it among its 15 national planning scenarios.
According to the agency, if a chlorine storage tank in a high-density area were attacked, about 100,000 people would be hospitalized and 10,000 would die.
Chlorine is such a part of our daily lives that we often take it for granted as a safe way to purify our water, clean our clothes, and disinfect our swimming pools. Yet it is a fast-acting, and potentially deadly substance, as the Germans demonstrated during World War I when it was used in chemical warfare," writes Mayer Nudell, CSC, an independent consultant on crisis management, contingency planning, and related issues, on the Security Management website. The chemical has been used to limited effect by insurgents in Iraq, and its potential for use by terrorists poses great concern, which led to new regulations for railroads carrying hazmats (hazardous materials), including chlorine.
Humanistic, Ethical, and Under Arrest
Lins was detained for an hour. At all times the officers in charge were courteous and acted in a balanced and appropriate manner at all times. It was a harrowing experience, but Lins wasn't satisfied with his photographs. Having seen five chlorine cars marked with dire warnings moving along the tracks, he was determined to go back and video tape the transport from a better position. He returned three days later, last Monday night. He waited from midnight until 5 a.m. and saw no sign of the chlorine transport.
"Maybe they realized they were being watched and stopped," he said. "If they did that's a good thing."
"I have a great deal of respect for Kent," Elana Robinson, Research Coordinator, HPV FOCAL Study, said. "In all my interactions with him, I have experienced him to be one of the most ethical and humane people I know. However, this humanistic philosophy does not preclude him from realistically assessing issues. In fact, he has an admirable ability to cut through a fog of grey, to assess the shades of light and dark beneath the fog, and then emerge out of it with a perspective that is clear, conscious, intelligent and deep. While he can cut through the fog to the basics underneath – consistently, his perspective is never overly reliant on either black or white, but always based in what is most respectful of his own integrity and ethics and the wisdom of appreciation of the perspectives of all."
"I've been Kent's neighbor and friend for almost a decade. Kent Lins is a helpful citizen," Robert Chaplain said.
"At the bare minimum there needs to be concrete barriers where people could be driving into the Canexus property. It would take them a few hours to set it up and would cost them at most maybe $2,000 and that could prevent a major disaster of somebody driving at high-speed into the property. Even so, the cars are still vulnerable at multiple points through the city. I think there's two points where a high speed car prior to the tunnel where a car traveling at high speed could absolutely make contact with the trains."
"It's not secured all along the way."
The following day, Lins received a visit from security officers at his Kitsilano home. He said he wasn't sure which branch of law enforcement they'd come from. They said they wanted to conduct an "informal interview" about the incident. Lins was happy to talk with them. It was eventually made clear they were from the Integrated Security Unit.
"I have nothing to hide," he said. "Nothing."
They went to a Tim Horton. They asked him if he was a protestor or if he was a member of the media.
Lins told them of his concerns.
They asked about some photographs he had posted on his flickr site. They seemed satisfied with his answers.
After the meeting, Lins set up a Facebook page to call for the end of the transport of chlorine through Greater Vancouver by rail.
"This group is for people who have considered the facts and agree that Chlorine shipments through the cities of Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminister, Surrey, Delta and onward into the USA are currently too dangerous to continue," he explains on the page. "We do not accept that it is safe to continue shipments while there are multiple opportunities for an accidental or deliberate breach of a rail car filled with Chlorine gas. We understand that if a railcar were breached tens of thousands of people could die within an hour. We understand that those people who didn't die would suffer permanent damage to their internal organs and skin. We want our elected officials, and staff in various departments of government to step up and take responsibility for preventing a potentially catastrophic accident. We want shipments of Chlorine to stop immediately."