What’s safer (and not) since the Lac-Megantic disaster

Above: In Lac-Megantic, an entire town is getting ready to mark its most devastating moment when a runaway train destroyed its downtown core, changing lives forever.

This weekend marks one year since a runaway train carrying tanks of oil came barrelling into the centre of a small Quebec town. The unmanned train destroyed the downtown area, killed 47 people and contaminated waterways.

In the wake of the Lac-Megantic disaster, the federal government has amended some regulations and pledged relief and remediation money to the community. But as the anniversary approaches, questions remain:

  • What has the government done?
  • What does it still need to do?
  • Is it safer to transport oil by rail today than one year ago?
  • And, perhaps the most harrowing question, can this happen again?

READ MORE: Crude awakening: a Global News series on oil

Despite new regulations and reassurances from the government that Canada’s railways are safer, opposition MPs and critics say there is more to do to ensure nothing of the sort happens again.

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The quantity of oil travelling along the railroads is increasing constantly; in 2009, 500 carloads of crude oil were shipped by train. Last year, that number jumped to 160,000 and it’s expected to hit 510,000 in 2016.

Firefighters douse blazes after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Que. on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed the town.
Firefighters douse blazes after a freight train loaded with oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Que. on July 6, 2013, sparking explosions that engulfed the town. François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images

What has the government done?

The tank cars filled with crude oil that punctured and exploded in Lac-Megantic are called DOT-111s. Known to pierce easily long before last July’s tragedy, the government moved recently to prohibit, by 2017, their use for transporting dangerous goods unless they are one of the few made to current design standards.

READ MORE: Would you want these rail cars rolling through your backyard?

The Transportation Safety Board, however, has warned even those tankers may not be safe enough to transport volatile substances such as crude oil.

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The government last summer issued a directive requiring unmanned locomotives on main tracks be locked, engineers to follow guidelines on applying hand brakes and also ensure that automatic brakes are in “full service position.”

Further, the government has ordered railways transporting dangerous goods to reduce speeds and assess the potential risk of routes.

“Our government is committed to the safety and security of Canadians,” a spokeswoman for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said.

Below: Sunday marks the first anniversary of the explosion, one of the worst disasters in Canadian history. Mike Armstrong, one of the first reporters to see the devastation, returns to see how the town has recovered in the past year.

What do governments and railways still need to do?

Keith Stewart, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace, said some of the government’s measures — like ordering locomotive doors locked when the engineer is gone — are “common sense.”

But another directive Stewart said was a no-brainer — to never leave trains carrying dangerous goods unattended — didn’t stick.

“Unfortunately, (the government) succumbed to industry lobbying on that more effective safety measure,” he said. “This is putting oil and rail company profits ahead of public safety.”

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READ MORE: Deadly train disaster still haunts people of Lac-Megantic one year later

The Transportation Safety Board — an independent agency tasked with investigating marine, pipeline, railway and aviation accidents — last month released an assessment of Transport Canada’s responses to the agency’s post-Lac-Megantic recommendations.

“There are risks to carrying more and more oil by rail,” chair Wendy Tadros wrote in a statement. “We are pleased with the strong first steps … and will be watching carefully for crucial follow-up action on Class 111 tank cars and route-planning analysis.”

Critics, however, 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,” Hoang Mai, the NDP transport critic, told The Canadian Press.

Is it safer to transport oil by rail today than one year ago?

Despite the new regulations, the steep increase in the quantity of oil travelling by rail means communities are more at risk of disaster today than last year, Stewart said.

“The increase in quantity of oil being moved by rail has more than offset the effect of new safety measures introduced by the government,” he said this week.

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READ MORE: Transport Canada extended deadlines imposed to address safety weaknesses

Still, the minister’s office maintains it has taken “decisive action” to address the Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations. The minister also directed her department to create a task force to bring communities, first responders, railways and shippers together to strengthen emergency response across the country.

Could this happen again?

Neither Raitt’s office nor the Transportation Safety Board addressed this question. Stewart, however, again pointed to the increasing amount of combustible materials travelling by rail.

“Rail lines cut through the hearts of our communities, right across the country, and they are carrying ever greater quantities of crude oil,” he said. “The federal government is gambling that there won’t be any more deaths from an oil train derailment, but by allowing ever-greater quantities of oil to be shipped in old, unsafe rail cars, they are tilting the odds in favour of another disaster.”

– With files from The Canadian Press