ABOVE: Shocking cellphone footage from the disaster in Lac-Megantic (July 6, 2013)
OTTAWA – Periodic flurries of federal regulation, rule-making and reassurance followed the rail disaster last July that killed 47 people, destroyed dozens of buildings and contaminated waterways in a small Quebec town.
But one year after the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, opposition MPs and a leading environmental group say still bolder steps are required to prevent another fiery and catastrophic derailment of an oil-laden train.
The quantity of oil that’s moving by rail is growing by leaps and bounds, and is being carried on a system of tracks that was never intended to handle such a huge volume of dangerous goods, they warn.
“We built the railway to unite the country and we built a lot of our cities and towns and municipalities around the railway,” said Liberal transport critic David McGuinty.
“If we were redesigning it today, we wouldn’t be running a lot of these materials through our urban and suburban centres.”
Crude oil shipments are expected to climb to more than 510,000 carloads in 2016 from 160,000 last year and just 500 in 2009, McGuinty and fellow MPs on the House of Commons transport committee heard during recent hearings.
Of the 80,000 to 100,000 DOT-111 tank cars in service across North America – the kind that ruptured in Lac-Megantic – just 14,000 were made to current design standards.
The federal government has prohibited use of the most vulnerable DOT-111 cars for dangerous goods, and says others that do not meet modern standards must be retrofitted or phased out within three years.
It has also strengthened emergency response requirements, and has commissioned a task force to look at further developing capacity to deal with serious accidents.
The government has ordered railways hauling dangerous goods to assess the risk of routes and reduce train speeds.
In addition, communities alongside tracks are advised of hazardous goods carried by rail, but only – apparently for security reasons – after they have already passed through town.
Critics say the plan, while headed in the right direction, falls short of what’s needed to ensure public safety.
“We do wonder if it’s really safer, and if it deals with all the problems that were raised after Lac-Megantic,” said Hoang Mai, the NDP transport critic.
The DOT-111 cars – long flagged as troublesome – should be taken off the tracks immediately, given the escalating level of oil shipments, argued Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.
Stewart said he believes that would mean slowing Alberta oilsands production – a move he considers reasonable in light of the risks. Otherwise, the aging tank cars will continue to snake across Canada for some time.
“They’re really loading the dice in favour of another Lac-Megantic,” Stewart said. “We all hope nothing like that happens again, but it’s entirely possible that it can.”
Opposition MPs say Transport Canada hasn’t done enough to ensure successful operation of the Safety Management System, or SMS, that each federal railway has been required to put in place since 2001.
The SMS does not replace federal regulation but is intended to help build a safety culture within a railway, which assigns responsibilities, sets goals and performance targets, and conducts risk assessments. Transport Canada is supposed to monitor compliance through formal SMS audits and detailed inspections.
The federal auditor general reported last fall that Transport completed just one-quarter of planned SMS audits over a three-year period, and there was little evidence that expected follow-up on shortcomings had been done.
Transport Canada told the MPs studying rail safety it would bolster audit training and procedures, improve data collection and introduce new legislation to beef up safety regulation.
Still, the committee hearings led McGuinty to believe nothing had really changed. “What we’ve seen from the auditor general’s report, in our view, still seems to stand.”
Mai wants Transport to play a significant role in helping railways identify alternate routes – though fewer in Canada than in the United States – that could help dangerous loads bypass populated centres.
He also wonders whether communities will have the resources and training needed to respond to severe rail accidents.
The federal government is evading fundamental questions about how the national railway system can safely accommodate a growing number of trains pulling scores of tank cars filled with oil, McGuinty said.
“What’s really required here is for the federal government to come clean on exactly what’s happening. What are the trends? What are their projections? And we need to examine rail safety in its entirety.”
The transport committee plans to make recommendations after hearing more witnesses this fall.
For instance, McGuinty wants to closely study the prospect of shippers – not just railways – taking on liability insurance, something he believes would help foster greater care about what’s being sent down the tracks.
“We need to start planning for the future, and right now I don’t see any evidence that we are.”
Ultimately, Canadians must have an “adult conversation” about their reliance on fossil fuels, he added.
Greenpeace’s Stewart said he agrees.
“We think we actually need a much broader conversation on the energy future in this country.”