Shipping Oil by Rail is Disastrous
Investigators and the public are reviewing the disastrous derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec of a MM&A train carrying crude oil that turned into an inferno on July 6. Transportation safety experts, local governments and others concerned about rail safety are once again pointing out that rail safety rules and safety monitoring have not kept pace with the rapid increase in the shipment of oil and other dangerous goods by rail (Global News, CTV News, AFP, CBC News, Bloomberg News, Globe and Mail).
The number of people who have been killed by the crude oil derailment so far in Lac-Megantic has risen to 15, and 50 others remain missing. The accident is already being labelled the country’s most lethal rail disaster since a collision between a Canadian National Railway freight train and a VIA Rail passenger train near Hinton, Alberta that killed 23 people in February 1986.
Environmental officials have also warned that 100,000 litres of the oil spilled in the July 6 Quebec disaster is headed for the St. Lawrence River. Lac-Megantic (the lake after which the village of Lac-Megantic is named) and a nearby river have already been inundated with spilled oil.
There are essentially no environmental standards that the rail industry must follow. Federal environmental legislation and regulations pertaining to the rail industry are so weak and outdated, and there is little or no environmental monitoring or enforcement of the weak legislation that does exist. No environmental impact assessments are required by the rail industry whenever it builds new, or upgrades old, infrastructure. On the other hand, the environmental accountability by the pipeline industry is much higher.
According to the Canadian Railway Association, rail shipments of oil in Canada have skyrocketed from 500 carloads in 2009 to an estimated 140,000 this year, a 28,000 per cent increase. CN Rail says the company plans to double its 33,000 carloads of oil shipped last year.
The Auditor General reported in late 2011 that “Transport Canada has not designed and implemented the management practices needed to effectively monitor regulatory compliance” when it comes to the transportation of dangerous goods. Safety experts worry that Transport Canada’s reluctance to seriously deal with increasing rail safety breaches will have dangerous outcomes for the public and the environment. NDP Transportation Critic, Olivia Chow, says, “I think most Canadians would be surprised to hear that rail companies are left to inspect themselves and Transport Canada goes over the paperwork.”
An investigation arising from the devastating 1.3 million-litre heavy bunker fuel oil and 700,000-litre pole treating oil spills into Wabamun Lake, Alberta in 2005 by CN Rail recommended much more stringent rules to improve track safety. But, unfortunately, the regulator – Transport Canada – has not done much, under heavy lobbying pressure from the powerful rail industry which does not want to spend the additional millions of dollars necessary to make the industry more safe.
According to Transport Canada data, the DOT-111A tank car (called a CTC-111A tank car in Canada) makes up about 69% of the American tank car fleet and about 80% of the Canadian fleet. When there is a derailment, this particular tank car model spills and ruptures very easily. As early as 1994, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada indicated this type of tank car had a flawed design and they have a “high incidence of tank integrity failure” during accidents. Stronger protective shells on the tank cars are required to prevent tragedies caused by the growing number of derailments.
It’s hard to say how much, if anything, will change as a result of this most recent crude oil train derailment, when it comes to safety of people and the environment. Until the federal Transport Department starts to do the regulatory job it is mandated to do, the rail industry will continue to cut corners in order to increase profits. And, until the pocketbooks of the rail industry are directly impacted by mounting pressures to improve rail safety, rail companies will continue to ignore the pleas for improvements. Perhaps the Lac-Megantic tragedy will actually affect rail company pocketbooks – following the derailment last Saturday, CIBC has just cut profit targets for CN Rail and downgraded CN’s stock, in anticipation of additional expenditures that the rail giant will be forced to make to improve safety of its crude oil transport.
For more information on the risks of shipping oil and other dangerous products by rail, see this link.