Lower Mainland municipalities alarmed by record amounts of oil moving through B.C.

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      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.”




      Jan 10, 2015 at 9:51am

      With oil at $50 per barreI, is it even financially viable to ship oil by rail?

      Steve Cooley

      Jan 10, 2015 at 10:43am

      It is easy to find out what trains are carrying. Sit beside the tracks for awhile with a pencil and paper and the book of UN numbers, count the cars and record the numbers. Of course, you may be able to tell if the car is loaded or empty and the cars without placards may be without cards due to negligence, deception or vandals.

      In my working days, I was a BC Ambulance Unit Chief in a small town and one of my responsibilities was disaster planning. One obvious potential disaster was the CNR mainline. I watched the trains to notice how many of what they were carrying. After awhile I could look at the train from many blocks away and know what the placarded cars had in them.

      Cities have many employees with responsibility for disaster planning. One or two of them could spend some time observing the trains and have data to estimate what is in the railyard and traveling on the tracks on any given day.

      Corporate Welfare

      Jan 10, 2015 at 12:30pm

      It's environmentally unsound as well as Economically stupid.

      1. In Canada we GIVE our natural resources like Oil to Corporations for next to nothing vs Norway's model which keeps 80% of Oil Revenue for it's Citizens,

      2. even NewFoundland keeps between $2-$3 Billion a year,

      3. Alberta gives away 99% of it's Oil Revenue, currently it's 1% Royalty Rate,

      In BC we get no direct Royalty or Revenue from Oil shipped either via Pipeline or Train destined for primarily Asia.

      That's stupid BC ought to impose a Trans shipment "Fee" on the current Oil shipment regardless of method at about 25% or more based on the current Oil Price.

      James Blatchford

      Jan 10, 2015 at 1:31pm

      "The people of Lac-Mégantic wished they had pipelines instead of rail,” Moore continued.

      Well thank you Captain Obvious, this comes as a huge surprise!


      Jan 10, 2015 at 4:19pm

      This happens because of the cowardice of our politicians not to stand firmly against resource extraction of various sorts. So heartbroken that the NDP is not anti-resource extraction. Energy politics are the politics of disappointment. In Canada that's all the politics we have. Sometimes, I long for the Democrats.


      Jan 10, 2015 at 6:40pm

      This whole debate has become political and sadly no longer considers the real environmental and economic impacts that each side tries to present. Energy extraction is not pretty, but it's necessary for our society as a whole whether you agree with it or not. Mitigating the risks are essential however so is putting more effort into other, more constructive ways to actually improving our environment rather than using pipelines and oilsands as the bogeyman for all causes of global warming. Which it clearly is not. So I say just build a couple of pipelines already and be done with it!

      L Leeman

      Jan 11, 2015 at 1:15am

      Ben says: "I think the truth is that industry wants both, not one or the other"

      Well we'd all like to hear what YOU want Ben.

      John robinson

      Jan 11, 2015 at 12:08pm

      the left wing moonbats must be losing there minds


      Jan 11, 2015 at 1:39pm

      Regarding tar sands oil, just leave the oil in the ground.

      Say "no" to oil transport by rail.
      Say "no" to oil transport by pipeline.

      Say "yes" to a brighter future without tar sands oil.

      Tommy Khang

      Jan 12, 2015 at 9:02am

      Wow clearly it must be mind boggling considering that Vancouver is home to the largest port in Canada and top 5 port in North America, that goods of any sort would be moving through our city!

      Let's just close down our port and effectively kill off any economy that Vancouver has, that would be a great idea. One way to ensure affordable housing for everyone!