Chlorine in our Backyard

A 52-year-old industrial chemical plant on the North Shore will close for at least four weeks in the same quarter as  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 and 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 from his office near Washington D.C. where he is a hazardous materials transportation security consultant and former staffer at the environmental lobby group, Friends of the Earth.

Millar 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.

Single biggest terrorist threat?

The Maplewood Advisory Committee criticized the Vancouver Port Authority in 2007 for extending their lease with Canexus until 2032. The extension hinges on the upgrades now 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.

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