Quebec tragedy sparks debate

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As the small town of Lac-Megantic is recovering from the devastation caused by a derailed train exploding and killing more than 40 people, the tragedy has brought safety issues around railways to the forefront in Burnaby.

At a recent city council meeting, Coun. Nick Volkow asked staff to prepare a report that looks into the type of hazardous materials passing through Burnaby and what warnings are provided, if any, when they do.

Volkow noted a “28,000 per cent increase” in the volume of oil transported by rail in the last four years. “Basically, (Transport Canada) is washing their hands of regulating railroads and turning it into a self-regulatory regime, which I think is dangerous for all of us,” he told the Burnaby NOW. “For one thing, I’m getting the first responders, the fire department in particular, to outline the history in their dealing with railroads over the years on various issues. I want a serious report done on this – not some whitewashing of the issue.”

Following the report, Volkow hopes it will answer his questions and provide background information, as he intends to meet with representatives of the federal regulating authority.

“I’m not going to knock the railways,” he added. “The railways are doing exactly what they’re entitled to do. The issue is, I think, that some of the things they’re entitled to do are inappropriate.”

In Quebec, about one per cent of Lac-Megantic’s citizens were killed by the explosion, and about 12 people are still missing.

“One per cent of the population of Burnaby, is what, about 2,200 people?” Volkow noted. “Imagine an equivalent catastrophe here, with 2,200 people. What do you think we’d be saying then?” Tom Gunton, a professor in Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management, said the basic problem is that crude oil transported by rail cars has increased dramatically, compared to five or six years ago when there was almost no shipment of crude oil by rail.

“Now it’s become significant,” he said. “It continues to grow in size of oil pipelines, but where an oil pipeline has comprehensive regulatory processes they’re required to go through to get approval to build pipelines, according to the National Energy Board Act, … there’s an extensive review process, public consultation and all that, and increased shipments by railway don’t require (that). There’s no impact assessment process, no public consultation process.”

Essentially, the creation of pipelines on railways without any kind of regulation oversight is what’s happening, Gunton said.

The other issue is that enforcement, regulation approval processes and compensation for when an incident does occur are lacking, he added.

Gunton noted that rail cars are prone to puncture in 75 per cent of tanker cars used to ship oil, and because of the weak regulations, companies do not have to replace weaker tanker cars with new and improved ones.

“What needs to happen, is people need to lobby the government and demand the federal government do a comprehensive review, open to public process,” Gunton said.

Meanwhile, Burnaby resident Art Quan said he’s concerned Chevron’s Burnaby refinery will further rely on rail and truck movements, now that the National Energy Board turned down the company’s bid for prioritized access to oil by pipeline.

Quan is part of the community advisory panel for Chevron’s North Burnaby refinery. The group has been lobbying the city for a web-based localized system that would notify residents near the refinery of an emergency.

“Certainly, incidents of a serious nature do occur, and when they do, I think it’s certainly prudent for the city to have a planned response where they would be able to rapidly notify the citizens of Burnaby,” he said.

Chevron’s Burnaby refinery is willing to assist with funding such a system, according to the refinery’s spokesperson, Ray Lord.

The refinery currently receives eight to 10 rail cars a day, with about 6,500 barrels of oil, Lord said.

“All of us at Chevron extend our thoughts and sympathies to those affected by the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, Quebec,” Lord said. “However, that event was the result of a tragic accident – a runaway train – and is not reflective of the daily crude delivery operations at the Burnaby refinery.”

Lord said the tanker cars have been brought in and out of the refinery’s new offloading facility since May in a controlled switching operation, which takes place at low speeds.

“By its very nature, the refinery maintains a high level of preparedness for emergency response,” he said. “Our new off loading facility has been designed and engineered to current safety standards.”

Lord also noted that hazardous goods are transported across the country every day.

“Managing and mitigating the risks associated with moving those goods is a top priority for industry across North America, including here in Burnaby,” he said.

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