AG refutes granting Transport Canada extensions on addressing safety weaknesses

Quebec provincial police have released dramatic photos of what has been dubbed the 'red zone': the scene of the train derailment and massive explosion in Lac-Megantic. Handout/Surete du Quebec

OTTAWA – The Auditor General’s Office is refuting a claim that it “granted” Transport Canada extensions on fulfilling commitments to address weaknesses in its oversight of the transportation of dangerous goods.

“We aren’t, as auditors, the ones who grant extensions,” spokeswoman Celine Bissonnette wrote in an email. “That is Transport Canada’s own decision, for which they alone are accountable.”

The deadlines in question were set in response to a damning audit from the federal environment commissioner, who worked in the Auditor General’s Office, published in December 2011.

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

Commitments were grouped into five broad categories, and each carried a self-imposed deadline ranging from January 2012 to April 2013.

In the wake of the tragedy in Lac-Megantic — where up to 50 people are feared dead after a runaway train carrying crude oil exploded – Transport Canada said it had quietly pushed some of its deadlines back, after obtaining approval from the auditor general’s office.

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Before the auditor general releases audits publicly, findings are sent to departments for review. Departments can either accept or deny the recommendations. If they are accepted, departments explain what they will do to mitigate the problems, and by when.

Although Transport Canada provided the AG with updates on any progress to its commitments, all initial and updated deadlines were solely in the hands of Transport Canada, a spokeswoman from the AG’s office said.

“This action plan was a Transport Canada initiative, and the Office had no involvement in setting, altering, or approving its deadlines or content,” she continued.

In his warnings, then-environment commissioner Scott Vaughan cautioned that public safety is increasingly at risk because of a failure on the government’s part to provide and enforce sufficient oversight of transporting dangerous goods — including oil — by road, rail, air and ship.

Transport Canada agreed with the audit and its recommendations at the time, committing to address the concerns, the last by April 2013.

As of today, commitments in three of the five broad categories have yet to be fulfilled.

READ MORE: By the numbers: Lac-Megantic train explosion

One such commitment, now on track for completion in June 2014 — two years after the original deadline June 2012 — is clarifying roles and responsibilities of Transport Canada employees involved in inspecting dangerous goods.

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Transport Canada also missed its deadlines to introduce a quality assurance program to help document whether companies transporting dangerous good are complying with regulations for shipping such material.

“Some recommendations require more time to implement than others, which is why the Office of the Auditor General (under which the environment commissioner operated) has granted the department an extension to the self-imposed deadlines,” a Transport Canada spokeswoman explained in an email to Global News Wednesday – contradicting the account of the Auditor General’s Office.

Even at the time of the commissioner’s 2011 report, the faults he identified were not new, having already been identified in internal government reports years earlier.

“Many of the weaknesses we found in Transport Canada were identified more than five years ago and have yet to be fixed,” he wrote at the time.

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