Another Canadian train derails, enflaming controversy over dangers of transporting crude

Canadians need to demand more transparency from rail companies about what they are carrying through cities and how to respond in worst-case scenarios, a Hazmat consultant says.

Photo of train derailment near Gainsford, Alberta, via @CP_style
train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed west of Edmonton Saturday at 1 a.m., forcing the evacuation of people living nearby.  Thirteen cars — four carrying petroleum crude oil and nine pressurized containers carrying liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) — left the tracks along Highway 16 and Range Road 61, according to CBC.
 

Nearby resident Elaine Hughes told CBC’s Laura Osman she woke to her entire trailer shaking and looked out her window to see the entire sky lit up by the flames. 

The third CN rail accident in recent weeks raises major safety concerns about oil transport and whether rail companies should be allowed to transport commodities near communities while withholding key information about hazardous materials from the public.  No one was killed in yesterday's accident, but some experts are still alarmed, as rail transport of crude and other hazardous materials, including chlorine, have seen a sharp rise in Canada in recent years.


Of the 43,721 km in track operated in Canada, CN operates around 32,831 km, and is rapidly expanding its crude oil transport. In British Columbia, CN recently announced it's considering shipping Alberta bitumen to Prince Rupert in Northern B.C. by rail, at the urging of Chinese-owned Nexen, Inc., which was bought by CNOOC last year. Internal documents revealed that CN could run seven trains daily, carrying oil to match the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway's capacity of 525,000 barrels of diluted bitumen per day. The CN rail pitch was thought to become a "Plan B" in case Northern Gateway pipeline is rejected by the National Energy Board.

CN rail network from CN Network Map site

What's on that train?

In Canadian communities on major train routes, the public remains largely uninformed about what the trains are carrying.  "It’s absolutely incredible that municipalities don’t know what is passing through their territory,” said Quebec Transportation Minister Sylvain Gaudreault shortly after the Lac Mégantic tragedy, in which rail cars carrying crude oil exploded, leaving 47 people confirmed dead and five still missing. 

Hazmat consultant Fred Millar told the Vancouver Observer that members of the American Association of Railroads (of which both CN and CP Rail are members) are required to disclose information upon request, according to Circular OT-55-N, which states: 

"Upon written request, AAR members will provide bona fide emergency response agencies or planning groups with specific commodity flow information covering at a minimum the top 25 hazardous commodities transported through the community in rank order."

The document also notes that information can be distributed publicly in whole or in part with the railroad's written permission.

But there is no information available about how many Canadian cities the rail companies have granted this permission to, if any. When asked which cities and towns in North America were provided with the information about commodities that the trains were carrying, AAR spokesperson Holly Arthur would not provide specific numbers.  "
We do not know how many communities have requested this, or how frequently," she said.

Millar said there is a severe "power imbalance" between rail companies and local officials, in which the private rail companies are continuing to expand without proper oversight by government. Rail companies do release information to local emergency response groups upon written request, but information about hazardous commodities and how to respond in a worst-case scenario remains hidden from the public.

The only way companies will disclose this information, he says, will be if local communities persistently demand to know what dangers are being posed by rail transport. 

"Communities must force rail companies to provide information about what what they're carrying," Millar said. 

Even with beefed-up safety measures, the transport of fossil fuels always carries the risk of a major disaster, Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema insists.  "After Lac Mégantic, everyone expected that the federal government would move swiftly to implement safety recommendations, some of them a decade old, to improve rail safety."

Transportation boards in Canada and the US have been pushing for this for years, he said, with some recommendations going back nearly a decade, but the federal government still hasn't made changes to date. 


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