City of Vancouver staff want more of a heads up when railway operators move large amounts of oil through town, but the federal government says it’s not ready to give it to them.
In a telephone interview, Vancouver deputy manager Sadhu Johnston said regulations have improved since the July 2013 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. But beyond that, the closest he came to expressing satisfaction was to describe the rules as “better than nothing”.
Sadhu told the Straight the transport of dangerous goods by rail is on mayors’ radars because Canadian railroads are being used to transport more oil than ever before.
“It is something that we are aware of, concerned about, training for, and continuing to work on,” he said. “So it is definitely an area of concern for us, from a safety perspective, particularly given the issues that were raised through Lac-Mégantic, of the different types of oils that are being shipped and, in many ways, our lack of knowledge of those types of materials.”
On January 6, the Straight reported on new numbers provided by Transport Canada that show the transport of oil by rail through British Columbia hit a record high in 2014. The data also reveals a sharp spike in the rate at which trains are being used to move oil.
In 2009, six railcars carrying 251 tonnes of crude petroleum rolled through the province. In 2014, more than 4,100 cars carrying roughly 333,500 tonnes of crude oil moved through B.C.
Accidents involving the release of dangerous goods are also on the rise. And the Transportation Safety Board of Canada attributes more accidents specifically to increased volumes of oil moving on Canadian train tracks.
A June 2014 Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers report attributes the sharp rise in oil-by-rail shipments to a growing supply of crude oil combined with protracted regulatory approvals for new pipelines.
Leaving cities out of the loop
The “lack of knowledge” Sadhu mentioned was a reference to existing regulations that define how railway operators communicate to local authorities what’s moving through their cities.
In accordance with the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, 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.
Sadhu said the City of Vancouver has never been satisfied with this framework, but he added it hasn’t been able to convince the federal government to change how railways operate.
“If you had some sort of hazardous material that was going to be part of a special system of something, you would want to know,” he emphasized. “As it stands, what we’re getting is a report that says, ‘This is what went through your community last year.’ But it’s more than we had before.”
Sadhu is far from alone with such criticisms. A survey of Lower Mainland mayors the Straight conducted last July found most were unhappy and that several were actively lobbying the federal government for changes.
White Rock mayor Wayne Baldwin became concerned about the transport of oil by rail when he learned that Bakken formation crude—the same volatile petroleum from North Dakota that destroyed downtown Lac-Mégantic—was being transported through his community without city hall’s knowledge.
“Apparently, they [BNSF Railway] are not shipping it [Bakken crude] at this time, as far as I know,” Baldwin said in a telephone interview. “Although they could be. Of course we don’t find out until a month after a shipment goes through what it was that went through.”
Like Vancouver staff, Baldwin said he wants to know what’s transported on tracks that traverse White Rock before those trains roll through.
Pipelines versus rail?
Baldwin also raised questions about opposition to oil pipelines.
“There is a strong demand for the oil so obviously it is going to get shipped, one way or another,” he said. “So what’s the best way to ship it? My way of thinking is, pipeline has to be safer than by train.”
Transport Canada and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada declined to make representatives available for interviews.
An email supplied by Transport Canada communications advisor Ben Stanford emphasizes that there are over 30 million shipments of dangerous goods in Canada every year. It adds that “99.9 percent of them” reach their destination safely.
The email notes that in November 2013, an agreement was reached with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities that provides for the communication of information concerning the transport of dangerous goods.
In a recent interview with the Vancouver Sun, Industry Minister James Moore argued that when it comes to oil, pipelines are the better option over rail.
“We’re clogging up our rail arteries with dangerous materials,” said the Conservative MP for Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam. “That’s something to be concerned about.”
“The people of Lac-Mégantic wished they had pipelines instead of rail,” Moore continued. “It’s very dangerous for the Lower Mainland…to have the massive spike in rail transfer of dangerous goods.”
Ben West, the new executive director of Tanker Free B.C., described a choice between pipelines and oil by rail as a “red herring”.
“As much as it is kind of a threat that is being held over us—‘Approve these pipelines or we’re bringing exploding trains to your neighbourhood’—I think the truth is that industry wants both, not one or the other,” he said. “I don't think that even if their pipelines get built that we’ll see their rail projects abandoned.”