Gail Terry was standing in her living room last fall when a train began rolling past her home in South Surrey. Having lived beside the railroad tracks for more than 20 years, she barely noticed its rumble.
But a glimpse of the train alarmed her, Terry recalled in a telephone interview. For the next seven or eight minutes, black tanker cars lumbered by her home in Crescent Beach, near the north edge of White Rock. Terry counted 110 before she was distracted by a phone call.
“It was just a very ominous sight,” she said. “It went on, and on, and on.”
Terry said her mind jumped to the July 2013 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, when 74 runaway cars carrying crude oil rolled into the centre of town, derailed, and exploded, killing 47 people.
For the next three months, Terry watched the trains go by, growing increasingly worried about their contents. After obtaining a list of hazardous-materials codes that are posted on the outside of railcars in Canada, her fears were confirmed when she learned the trains were carrying Bakken formation crude oil, the same volatile petroleum from North Dakota that destroyed downtown Lac-Mégantic.
Terry wrote a letter expressing her concerns to the mayor of White Rock, Wayne Baldwin, who told the Straight he had no idea Bakken crude was moving through his town until Terry brought the matter to politicians’ attention.
“Our first responders didn’t even know about it until about a month after it started,” Baldwin said in a telephone interview. “I think we need to have a real good look at dangerous goods and the corridors that they go through. They shouldn’t be going through heavily populated areas.”
White Rock joins a number of jurisdictions across North America that are concerned about the transport of Bakken crude and other forms of oil through their communities. Bakken crude was also involved in an accident in Casselton, North Dakota, in December 2013, when a mile-long train derailed and its contents exploded, sending a massive fireball hundreds of feet into the air, and in November 2013, when another train derailed and caused a series of large explosions in rural Alabama.
Baldwin noted that local municipalities have no say in what rail operators move through their cities and, in many cases, no idea what trains are carrying.
According to information provided to the Georgia Straight by Transport Canada, the number of railcars that carried crude oil and diluted bitumen through British Columbia increased from 41 in 2011 to 3,381 in 2013.
For North America, the increase has been so sharp that in January 2014, transport authorities in Canada and the United States took the unusual step of issuing a joint call for regulators to improve safety standards for the transport of oil by rail.
“The amount of crude oil now being shipped by rail in North America is staggering,” reads a January 23 Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) media release. “In Canada in 2009, there were only 500 carloads of crude oil shipped by rail; in 2013, there were 160,000 carloads. In the U.S. in 2009, there were 10,800 carloads; and in 2013, there were 400,000 carloads.”
A June 2014 Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers report states that delays on pipeline projects designed to move heavy crude from the Alberta oilsands (also known as the tarsands) to ports in British Columbia will likely result in an increased reliance on rail.
“In the absence of adequate capacity in Western Canada, rail transport is expected to continue to rise due to the protracted regulatory processes for new pipelines and other uncertainties,” the report reads.
It projects that by the end of 2015, the transportation of crude oil by rail in Western Canada will exceed one million barrels per day.
Two of the most significant setbacks to pipeline projects planned for B.C. came after that report’s publication, suggesting that its estimate could be conservative.
Pipeline delays push oil to rail
On June 26, the Supreme Court of Canada found that corporations must have the consent of First Nations before they proceed with projects on land where aboriginal people hold title. (The government can proceed without consent if a project can be “justified by a compelling and substantial public purpose”.) Since that ruling—known as the Tsilhqot’in decision—Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs president Stewart Phillip has told media that First Nations groups have launched at least nine legal challenges aimed at stopping the construction of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which would transport diluted bitumen from the oilsands to a port in Kitimat.
Then, on July 14, the National Energy Board announced it was delaying its review of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion by seven months.
At the same time that pipeline delays and a continent-wide spike in production are sending oil-by-rail numbers skyrocketing, train accidents in Canada are also on the rise.
According to TSB data, there were 110 derailments in B.C. in 2013. That number marks a five-year high, up from 91 in 2012, 99 in 2011, 100 in 2010, and 94 in 2009. Most incidents did not involve a hazardous material.
The situation in White Rock and Surrey has changed since city officials learned that Bakken crude was moving down the tracks along Crescent Beach. A spokesperson for BNSF Railway—the carrier for that route—claimed it’s been three months since it moved oil down that line.
“We were running it [oil] more frequently, but as of recently, there has not been that requirement,” Gus Melonas said on the phone from Seattle.
That could change, though, and Bakken crude oil could return to White Rock rails without local authorities even being told in advance.
Transport Canada declined a request for an interview.
The Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act requires that rail operators inform municipalities of hazardous materials moved through their jurisdictions but not until after trains have already come and gone.
Railways provide local authorities with aggregate reports on the nature and volume of dangerous goods transported through civic jurisdictions on a quarterly basis. Local governments and emergency responders then use that data covering past shipments to conduct risk assessments and draft emergency-planning procedures for future incidents. Transport Canada spokesperson Roxanne Marchand advised the Straight that carriers are also supposed to inform municipalities of any “significant changes” in goods transported “as soon as possible”.
Some Metro Vancouver mayors report that they are satisfied with this framework, while others have called for reforms. Baldwin and White Rock residents have become some of the Lower Mainland’s most vocal critics of oil by rail, but they’re not alone.
Civic leaders left out of the loop
On the phone from the neighbouring city of Surrey, Mayor Dianne Watts said she finds the prospect of more oil by rail “problematic”.
“There has been crude that has been coming through for a number of years; the increase is what concerns me,” she told the Straight. “When you look at that increase of crude being railed through parts of densely populated areas, it is a cause for concern.”
Watts suggested that if Alberta’s heavy crude is going to come to B.C. shores one way or another, either by pipeline or rail, pipelines are likely the safer of those two options.
In Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson has made oil pipelines and coastal tanker traffic a campaign issue ahead of elections scheduled for November 2014. He has publicly opposed Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansions of its Trans Mountain pipeline, which concludes in Burnaby and would increase the number of oil tankers moving through Metro Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet from 60 to 400 ships per year. But Robertson has so far remained silent on the issue of oil by rail.
On July 15, Vision Vancouver councillor Andrea Reimer attended a conference in Seattle that saw more than 100 civic officials from across the Pacific Northwest meet to discuss increasing volumes of oil and coal moving through their cities.
“Even before Lac-Mégantic, this was an issue on municipalities’ radar screens across the country,” Reimer told the Straight.
She conceded she isn’t aware of how much oil is moving through the City of Vancouver via rail today, but she argued that is part of the problem.
“If you’re not told until afterwards how dangerous something is, how do you come up with proper emergency-response plans or be prepared for that?” she asked.
On the phone from Burnaby, where Chevron has operated an oil refinery since the 1930s, Mayor Derek Corrigan similarly complained about a lack of advance information on what trains are carrying through populated areas.
“We’ve been begging to have information about exactly what products are moving through our cities so that our fire department and other emergency responders could be better prepared,” he stressed. “They say that they’re happy to tell us after they’ve done it, but that doesn’t do much good for me looking after the lives and safety of the people who may have to respond to an accident.”
Corrigan described the potential for a major spill involving oil by rail as a simple matter of probability.
“I’ve found one thing when it comes to industrial accidents: if it can happen, it will,” he said. “The more incidence of movement by rail, the greater the likelihood is that you’re going to have a serious accident.”
Corrigan recalled that it was only six months ago that a train derailed in Burnaby and spilled 270 tonnes of metallurgical coal, some of which fell into Silver Creek. “I can’t imagine if that were oil,” he said.
Acting City of Langley mayor Ted Schaffer reported that although up to 20 freight trains move through his city every day, staff report there hasn’t been a car carrying oil as far back as they checked, to the beginning of 2013.
“Our fire department, they get a quarterly report on railcars going through the city,” he said. “Nothing has been red-flagged by them at all.”
Mayor Darrell Mussatto of the City of North Vancouver—where several of the largest bulk terminals in the Lower Mainland are located—similarly said he was satisfied with the city’s relationship with rail operators and the safety procedures they partner on.
“I don’t believe we have much oil by rail coming through our community,” he said. “Our fire departments work to understand what’s being transported through, and we are able to respond if there ever is an incident.”
Richard Stewart, mayor of Coquitlam—which is also home to bulk terminals—did not grant an interview.
Environmentalists call products the problem
Canada’s two largest railway operators, Canadian National Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., both declined requests for interviews. The Ministry for Natural Resources and the National Energy Board both referred questions to Transport Canada, which refused to grant an interview. The TSB said that it was not doing interviews until its investigation into the derailment in Lac-Mégantic was complete.
Since the explosion in Lac-Mégantic one year ago this month, there have been movements in areas of rail safety. An investigation remains ongoing, but already several recommendations for reforms have been suggested by the TSB and subsequently adopted by Transport Canada.
A TSB website states that Class 111 cars, an older model deemed susceptible to “product release during accidents”, should meet enhanced protection standards when used to transport flammable liquids. Railway companies should also conduct route planning and analyses for dangerous goods that ensure risk-control measures are in place. And emergency-response assistance plans should be required for the transport of large volumes of liquid hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas).
According to a June 18 media release, the TSB is “pleased with the strong first steps” taken by Transport Canada.
In a telephone interview, Greg Stringham, vice president (oilsands and markets) for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, noted that safety regulations for the transport of hazardous goods are undergoing a period of review and improvement in the wake of Lac-Mégantic.
Addressing some of Metro Vancouver’s mayors’ calls for real-time information on dangerous goods, Stringham claimed that the industry is “looking at a way of making that [information] readily available”. He remained optimistic about the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipeline projects, but he acknowledged that railroads have become a “critical part of [oil] transportation”.
“Particularly in the short term, the rail companies have been able to provide what we call swing capacity,” Stringham said from Calgary. “We’re currently at about 200,000 barrels per day [by rail], and we see that that could grow to 600,000 or 700,000 barrels a day over the next two or three years. But that’s really dependent on how much pipeline capacity there is.”
B.C.’s lone Green MLA, Andrew Weaver, attracted criticism in February 2014 when he published a lengthy essay proposing that Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline might not be the worst thing in the world if it were built with the condition that the province place a moratorium on the transport of diluted bitumen through coastal waters. He suggested that an oil refinery be constructed, possibly in Kitimat.
Weaver argued that if Alberta’s heavy crude is coming to B.C.’s coast, pipelines are a safer means of transport than rail. And if that oil is going to be exported via ship, it’s better that it be loaded onto tankers in a refined form that, in the event of a spill, is less environmentally destructive than diluted bitumen.
“If you want to say no to Enbridge and no to Kinder Morgan, you’ve got to think about these other things,” he said in a telephone interview. “These other things are rail traffic and the common-carrier obligation.”
Not only is trains’ cargo beyond the control of civic politicians, Weaver explained, even national rail operators don’t have a veto over the hazardous goods they transport.
The Canada Transport Act states that rail companies are legally obliged to carry “all traffic offered for carriage on its railway”. For hazardous materials, “adequate and suitable accommodation” must be provided.
“With pipelines and the trouble they are in, there is a huge potential for shipping bitumen in heated railcars,” Weaver said. “If it’s going to Kitimat [Northern Gateway’s western terminus], that would be along the Skeena River, and if it’s coming to Vancouver [where Trans Mountain ends], that would be along the Fraser River. In either case, this is a disturbing trend.”
Two of Vancouver’s largest antipipeline demonstrations were organized by Ben West, tarsands campaigner for ForestEthics Advocacy. The Straight asked West if environmentalists had picked the wrong target by focusing so much negative attention on the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain pipelines. Did they let oil by rail slip under the radar to create an environmental problem worse than pipelines?
“The problem here is the products themselves, not the means of transporting them,” West replied. “Saying pipelines are better than rail or vice versa is like saying that chewing tobacco is better than smoking cigarettes. The problem, really, is tobacco, not the means of delivering it.”