Thursday, 6 March 2014

Lac Mégantic a grim warning for Hamilton

Lac Mégantic a grim warning for Hamilton

Federal rail safety deregulation means city has to look after itself

Since the Lac Mégantic tragedy, Hamiltonians have grown increasingly worried about crude oil shipments by rail. And well they should! The tankers that exploded in Lac Mégantic may have passed through Hamilton. They were apparently filled with fracked oil from North Dakota, which contain highly flammable chemicals. Trains probably also carry bitumen from the Alberta tarsands through Hamilton. If bitumen-carrying tankers derailed and ruptured close to Hamilton watercourses, bitumen could sink to the bottom, poisoning our water, as occurred when Enbridge's pipeline ruptured in Kalamazoo, Mich. A billion dollars and four years later, it still has not been completely removed.
Regrettably, shipping dirty fossil fuels from fracking and from the tarsands is growing enormously by pipeline and by rail. There's been a 28,000 per cent increase in volumes of oil shipped by rail during the past five years. The Canadian Railway Association forecasted about 140,000 oil tankers to be shipped in Canada in 2013, up from only 500 carloads in 2009. And railroads plan to continue this exponential expansion.
Triggering this vast increase is the reckless plan to quintuple the output of the tarsands and to introduce fracking all across North America. These plans to exploit dirty sources of oil are motivated by profit-seeking corporations owned mainly by foreigners. Yet, the projects have the solid backing of the Harper government. Ordinary Canadians are left to live with the negative economic, social, health and environmental costs of this rapid plundering of Canada's finite natural resources.
For the Hamilton 350 Committee, the question of rail versus pipelines for shipping oil misses the point. We hold that two-thirds of all fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground. Climate change is happening and it's already hurting Hamilton with extreme weather, such as floods and ice storms. Unless Canadians reduce their use of fossil fuels, we're heading for ecological disaster.
But why should city councillors be concerned about rail safety during budget deliberations? The answer is liability. In Lac Mégantic, the MM&A Railway had $25 million in insurance and declared bankruptcy when it became clear the cleanup would cost hundreds of millions. What steps has Hamilton taken to avoid financial catastrophe should an oil-bearing train derail in Dundas and ignite? Has Hamilton done its due diligence on defects in hundreds of aging DOT-111 tankers passing daily through Dundas? These tankers make up 70 per cent of North America's rail-tanker fleet. Yet, their propensity to rupture is well-documented. CP Rail's CEO Hunter Harrison recently declared the DOT-111's should be "removed from the rails tomorrow." Let's take him up on that call. Unionized workers at National Steel Car, where many were built, would be working three shifts and a lot of overtime for years to come to retrofit or replace them.
What about other safety factors such as better track maintenance, slower train speeds, in-cab cameras, and automatic stopping systems? Since the Lac Mégantic inferno, Transport Canada has instituted a weak hazardous-materials reporting regulation. The railways themselves instituted some voluntary new safety rules.
However, weak and voluntary measures won't adequately protect Hamilton from an oil tanker spill. Why? Because the Lac Mégantic tragedy was the direct result of deregulation of rail transport. The federal government has, for decades, been cutting resources to Transport Canada while placing increasing reliance on railways to police themselves. This move is akin to placing the fox in charge of the proverbial chicken coop. For example, just weeks before the Lac Mégantic catastrophe, the Canadian Railway Association formally asked Transport Minister Lisa Raitt to permit them to stop railway inspectors from examining brake, axle, wheel and car components. The request was quietly withdrawn after the tragedy. The regulatory downsizing of train crews was also a factor in the catastrophe. The MM&A train that destroyed Lac Mégantic's core had a one-person crew, a far cry from decades ago when trains had much larger crews plus a caboose for them to stay in.
Because of lax federal regulations, city councillors must budget staff time to investigate what measures to protect itself from train wrecks a municipality can undertake on its own or in concert with other municipalities.
But even the best safety rules for trains (and pipelines) can't prevent all accidents, since people make mistakes. The best long-term protection against oil spills from trains (and pipelines) is to reduce and eventually eliminate the shipment of such hazardous materials.
This brief was originally delivered by Ken Stone to the General Issues Committee of Hamilton city council during its 2014 budget deliberations, on behalf of the Hamilton 350 Committee.
Hamilton Spectator, March 6th, 2014

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