Train tragedy: Could it happen here in B.C.?

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VANCOUVER — B.C. can expect more oil to be transported by rail, as production outpaces pipeline capacity, even if the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipeline propsals are built.

That could leave communities in B.C. vulnerable to the kind of train wreck that left the town of Lac-Megantic, Que. in ruins Saturday, killing five people and leaving 40 missing.

The disaster raises serious questions about safety risks posed by rail transport and the adequacy of Canada’s regulatory framework, according to environmental and transportation experts.

“This is a huge risk to our communities, rail lines go through the heart of communities right across this country as well as along our major waterways,” said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.

Stewart said B.C. and other provinces can expect to see an increase in oil shipment by rail, a practice that has increased dramatically in the past two years.

According to Stewart, moving oil by rail was virtually unheard of just five years ago. But as Alberta’s oil production combined with shale oil production in North Dakota overtook capacity on pipelines, rail companies saw an opportunity to fill the void.

In 2012, two per cent of Canada’s oil was shipped by rail, Stewart said, citing National Energy Board figures. That amount is triple what was shipped by rail in 2011.

“It’s expected to double or triple again this year,” he said. “So the amount (of oil) being moved is increasing very very rapidly and the rail companies are moving into this as a new profit centre,” he said.

As many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil are expected to rattle over Canada’s tracks this year, up from only 500 carloads in 2009, ccording to the Railway Association of Canada.

Thousands of new tanker cars have been ordered by North American railways.

Compounding the risk, Stewart added, is the fact that many rail companies move oil in cars known as “DOT-111” tankers.

These cars, most commonly used to transport crude oil in Canada, have a history of puncturing during accidents. The federal Transportation Safety Board has said repeatedly that they are prone to spill their contents during derailments and other impacts, and a U.S. Transportation and Safety Board investigation into a 2009 CN derailment and fire concluded that the tankers should be fitted with head shields, tank jackets and other safety measures to mitigate against disaster. It’s unclear if any of those recommendations were implemented.

Right now, only a small amount of oil is moved through B.C. by rail, said Stewart, mostly through the Interior and down to California. He said correspondence between environmental groups and several rail companies has revealed many are considering taking oil to the B.C. coast.

A spokesman from Canadian National Railway said Sunday the company does not transport oil in B.C.

Canadian Pacific Railway spokesman Ed Greenberg said in an email Sunday he did not have specific details on whether CP transports crude oil through B.C. He added: “We are not making any formal comment today in light of the tragic incident in Quebec.”

Approximately 230,000 barrels (more than 20 million litres) of oil are moved by rail in North America every day, according to the railway association. The association estimates that 99.99 per cent all “dangerous goods” rail shipments reach their destination without any spills caused by accidents or derailments.

Meanwhile, a new rail company has its sights firmly set on B.C. for oil transport. A group of Canadian businessmen calling itself Generating for Seven Generations (G7G) has proposed a 2,400-kilometre rail line that could move up to five million barrels of oil a day from Fort McMurray, Alta., to the port of Valdez, Alaska by way of northern B.C. and the Yukon. The oil would then be shipped to Asia.

A feasibility study is underway for G7G’s proposed Unifying Nations Railway Company, or UNRailCo, said G7G CEO Matt Vickers, adding the project is poised to go ahead regardless of whether Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline is approved.

“It’s going to be viable and feasible regardless of any and all pipelines,” said Vickers, noting the project directors have been purposefully “flying under the radar” until feasibility studies have been completed and a route has been finalized.

Oil transfer by rail as a whole has largely been off the public’s radar until now, said Stewart. He said he hopes the Lac-Megantic crash will alert Canadians to the trend and encourage them to insist the federal government enforce existing regulations.

“I think what we have to do is make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

Rail-transport policy expert Avrom Shtern, who also serves as spokesman for the Montreal-based Green Coalition, echoed the sentiment.

“Every mode (of transportation) has its nightmare scenarios. This one is it for the railways,” he said. “This (accident) was absolutely the perfect storm.”

The federal regulations and standards governing rail operations in Canada are complex and numerous. Companies such as Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the railway involved in the Lac-Magentic crash, are responsible for ensuring the safety of their rail lines, equipment and operations. This includes inspection, testing and maintenance programs in accordance with regulatory requirements. When a company is transporting dangerous goods such as crude oil, the rules — at least on paper — get even stricter.

The brakes and safety system on a train carrying hazardous materials must be inspected before and during every trip, for example. Employees must be regularly certified by the federal government, and no conductor can work for more than 12 hours straight, no matter what the train is carrying.

Transport Canada’s oversight role requires it to monitor railway companies for compliance with these rules, in addition to conducting audits, inspections and investigations. If a company fails to comply or has an accident, the government is also responsible for imposing fines and other sanctions.

That’s where the problems begin, according to Shtern.

“I think the government, especially after austerity cuts, relies more and more on the industry to police itself. It’s unacceptable. You can’t just write rules and expect the (train companies) to police themselves.

“I think it’s high time the government came back into the game and reined them in. They’re not doing their job.”

With files from Postmedia and the Canadian Press

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

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