Alberta train derailment renews fears over moving oil by rail
A train carrying propane and crude that crashed in the hamlet of Gainford, Alta., early Saturday morning is once again raising questions about the safety of moving oil by rail in Canada, particularly in the wake of July’s fatal rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Que. No one was hurt in Gainford, but it was Canadian National Railway Co.’s third notable derailment in the past month involving hazardous materials, and it caused explosions and fire on both sides of a four-line highway.
Alberta’s oil industry is a key reason rail has become a popular shipping method. As oil-sands production climbs, the amount of available space on North America’s pipeline network declines. The province’s energy industry could stall if shipping by rail came off the table.
“The system is safe,” Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said in an interview Saturday. “Although we will see derailments, we’ve never seen an accident or an incident like Lac-Mégantic, that’s for sure. But the system is safe.
“Over 99.9 per cent of the time the dangerous good makes it to its final destination. But all that being said, we still lost 47 people in Lac-Mégantic and it’s up to us to ensure that if there are mitigating things we can do, that we can learn from, that’s what we should be doing.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Speech from the Throne, delivered Thursday, said stricter rules for moving hazardous materials are on the way. The accident in Gainford, a rural town about 90 kilometres west of Edmonton, saw 13 cars go off the rails, including nine pressurized tanker cars filled with liquefied petroleum gas in the form of propane. Three of them caught on fire.
Officials let the fires burn, and one burned itself out by Saturday night. Four derailed cars were carrying oil. CN said it got them a “safe distance” from the derailed cars that were on fire. The fire jumped the four-lane highway, charring the pavement on the way. At least one rural home was threatened, with the fire burning grass near the house. Fire consumed grass and brush on both sides of the Yellowhead Highway, a major transportation corridor, and drivers must detour around the site of the accident.
Some residents in Entwistle, a small town about 15 kilometres from Gainford, remain supportive of moving oil and gas products on train tracks, despite the dangers.
“If we want technology – I like driving my vehicle; I like the thermostat rather than chopping wood – we’ve got to move it somehow,” Entwistle resident Ron Stewart said. The same tracks that run through Gainford are visible from his kitchen window. “How many people would give up their iPhone to keep the oil in the ground? If we want the technology, we’ve got to accept the hazards that come with it.”
Ivan Hiller, who lives a few doors down the street and even closer to the rail line, said he would prefer the energy industry use trucks rather than rail to move oil. (Trucks, however, have a higher spill rate than both rail and pipelines.)
“This weekend is absolutely very, very unfortunate,” said Diana McQueen, Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, who was working with officials at the site. “But when we look over all at some of the statistics on rail … about 99 per cent of all dangerous goods rail shipments reach their destination safely.”
Ms. McQueen wants “quick action” on the recommendations that followed the accident in Lac-Mégantic.
Ms. Raitt said she will meet with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the rail industry on Tuesday in Ottawa to discuss rail safety issues. She held a series of meetings with municipal representatives about rail safety after the crash in Quebec.
She issued a protective direction last week calling on the industry to test oil before it is transported, identify it properly, and share the results with Transport Canada. The Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating the derailment in Lac-Mégantic as well as the one in Gainford.
Ms. Raitt also expects to meet with U.S. officials this fall to continue discussions about the safety of rail cars that carry crude oil. “That’s an issue that we can only solve between our two countries because of the nature of the rail, because of the nature of the cars … you can’t have a regulation in one country and not the other.”
The federal government, in its Throne Speech, said railways and shippers will have to carry additional insurance and Ottawa will take “targeted action to increase the safety of the transportation of dangerous goods.”