Could the GTA be the next Lac-Mégantic?

Post written by Andrew Walker and Matheson Murray

As the fires from the Jan. 8 train derailment continue to burn in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, the safety of transporting crude oil via rail has again been thrust into the spotlight.

New federal regulations passed in the wake of the Lac Megantic derailment now require all Class 1 rail companies to give quarterly reports to municipalities detailing the nature and volume of dangerous goods that pass through their cities and towns.

Despite the tougher regulations, it’s still difficult for municipal leaders and residents to know exactly what is passing through their jurisdictions.

Crude routes in the GTA

While these disasters often take place in small towns across the country, many residents of the GTA might be surprised to learn that the tanker cars that vaporized the small Quebec town in July are similar to the ones currently chugging past their suburban backyards.

As the CN Rail map below shows, any crude oil being transported from the oil sands of Western Canada to refineries in the East, must pass through the huge population centres of the GTA.

Oil traveling from the west must route through the heavily populated Greater Toronto Area on its way to east-coast refineries.

New rules
There is no way to know how much oil is being transported by rail through the GTA at any point in time.

But following the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, the Canadian government informed the country’s rail companies that they will have to start telling municipalities what dangerous goods are being transported through their jurisdictions at any given time.

Transport Canada’s Protective Direction No. 32, passed into law Nov. 20, 2013.

The law states:

“Any Canadian Class 1 railway company that transports dangerous goods must provide the designated Emergency Planning Official of each municipality through which dangerous goods are transported by rail, with yearly aggregate information on the nature and volume of dangerous goods the company transports by railway vehicle through the municipality, presented by quarter.”

CN’s Communications and Public Affairs Director Mark Hallman told JNM Journal in an email that his company is working toward compliance with the new regulations.

“CN is actively compiling dangerous goods data for 2013, including data for crude oil, based on the last 12 months’ traffic that pass through a community and providing that information to the mayor, fire chief and chief administrative officer, to help the community develop its emergency response plans, and to ensure first responders have the necessary training, which CN will help provide. CN will provide this information to GTA communities in 2014.”

CN does not make the oil-transport information public due to security concerns.

“Prior to the protective direction, CN was supplying this information to municipalities on a confidential basis upon their request,” Hallman said.

No oil-by-rail in Oakville
CN Rail has provided Oakville with information on the transportation of hazardous good through the city.

“With respect to a specific plan to deal with the transportation of crude oil through Oakville, I have confirmed with CN that they do not transport crude oil through Oakville,” said Deputy Fire Chief Andy Glynn.

“Although our fire department trains to deal with all types of hazardous materials rail incidents, we do not have a specific emergency plan for crude oil.”

The Town of Oakville is working closely with CN on the rail safety issue.

“They attended our Emergency Control Group training on October 29th 2013 and provided an overview of their activities and details on what chemicals are transported through Oakville. Again they have confirmed there is no crude oil, (similar to what was involved the recent Quebec and New Brunswick train derailments), transported through Oakville,” Glynn said.

All communities in the GTA have extensive plans put in place for dealing with disasters. The Town of Oakville Emergency Plan is designed to address any type of emergency.

Growth of the oil-by-rail business
Pipelines have traditionally been the focus of concern regarding oil-transport safety. Now, communities and the media have switched their focus from leaky pipes to devastating explosions caused by train derailments. The increasing trend of transporting oil by train seems set to continue despite the recent disasters.

CN’s oil transport business has grown dramatically over the past three years. The company more than doubled its shipments in 2013 from the previous year.

New safety measures

In November of 2013, CN unveiled a special program to acquire new monitoring equipment designed to help identify defects.

“CN is stepping up its detection capability by adding track testing equipment to detect more issues before they can cause an accident,” Hallman said.

The company reports that 99.998 per cent of CN rail movements of dangerous goods arrive at their destination without accident. The stats related specifically to the transport of oil were not made available.

The graph below shows the average spill size for trains versus pipelines carrying crude oil.

Either way, GTA residents have to contend with the fact that oil is being transported right through their town as well as under their houses.

With files from Matheson Murray

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