CANADA: Oil and rail safety don't mix

Roger Annis reports on the controversies--and dangers--swirling around the drive by corporations to further exploit Canadian fossil fuels.

November 4, 2013

ANOTHER OIL train derailment and explosion in Canada has sent nearby residents fleeing from their homes in the middle of the night. It happened at 1 a.m. on Saturday, October 19 on a CN Rail line outside the hamlet of Gainford, Alberta, 53 miles west of Edmonton. The accident coincides with new steps by the Canadian government to extend oil and other resource extraction into the Arctic.

A portion of a long, mixed-cargo CN Rail train traveling westbound derailed. Nine of the derailed wagons were carrying liquid petroleum gas (propane), and four contained crude oil. Three of the propane wagons exploded into flames. A fourth was breached. The accident closed the adjoining Trans-Canada Highway for days. Fortunately, no lives were lost or serious injuries sustained in the conflagration.

The 125 residents of Gainford were evacuated from their homes, and a state of emergency was declared in the surrounding area. Some residents evacuated their homes with only the sleeping clothes they were wearing. A CBC News report [1] provided home video footage of the fire burning soon after the derailment.

Gainford resident Denise Anderson said her family received notice to leave at 3 a.m. "Two fire and rescue guys came and banged on the door, and [they] tell me I had to evacuate because there was a train derailment," she said. "They told me to get dressed and I had to go."

Taxidermist Jeanette Hall lives right across the highway from the derailment. "I woke up to something that sounded like an airplane landing on Highway 16, and the next thing you know you hear the boom-boom-boom of the train falling apart," she told CBC News. "Everything lit up. Next thing you know, the curtains melted to the window, and we took off running downstairs. I thought, 'We gotta get to the basement--everything's gonna blow up!' and then we happened to look outside and the entire front yard is on fire."

"We should have died in that--and we didn't. I can't explain how the house and everything didn't get burned down," she said. "It was hell. It was absolute, utter hell."

The evacuation lasted four days because the fires consuming the three propane wagons could not be safely extinguished. Emergency officials and local firefighters, the latter equipped with little more than water hoses, decided to leave the wagons to burn. The danger of the six other propane wagons exploding was settled by a combination of venting the fuel and setting explosive charges to set them on fire.

CN managed to drag the four oil wagons away from the fire. The worst damage to nearby homes was the melting of vinyl siding.

THIS ACCIDENT happened on the main CN Rail line that connects western Canada to the British Columbia (BC) coast at Prince Rupert and Vancouver. It wasn't supposed to be possible. CN says the line receives the very best inspections and preventive maintenance that it can provide, including ultrasonic examination of the rail, visual inspection of the rail bed and visual and electronic surveillance of the moving train. The train was inspected upon leaving Edmonton and was traveling at 21 miles per hour.

One local resident told CBC that he and his neighbors believe that the stretch of rail in the area is inherently unsafe because it was built on top of a bog.

This was the third train derailment in western Canada in as many weeks. Just two days prior, four CN rail wagons carrying anhydrous ammonia jumped the rails in Sexsmith, Alberta, forcing residents from their homes. In Landis, Saskatchewan, 17 CN rail wagons derailed on September 25 . Three were carrying lubricating oil, and one carried ethanol. Authorities rushed to evacuate a nearby primary school.

Just down the Trans-Canada highway from Gainford is the site of an infamous CN derailment in 2005 that dumped 700,000 liters of Bunker C fuel and 88,000 liters of pole-treating oil into and around Wabamun Lake. A Transportation Safety Board investigation found that the train derailed when the rail beneath it broke due to defects. CN pleaded guilty to three charges under provincial and federal environmental legislation and was fined $1.4 million.

The Gainford accident comes less than a week after a pro-fossil fuel industry working committee of the Alberta and British Columbia governments threatened to fast-track a plan for shipment of oil-by-train (tar sands bitumen) from Alberta to the BC coast. A consortium including CN Rail and the Chinese state-owned tar sands company Nexen says it could transport the equivalent of Northern Gateway to an export terminal to be built in Prince Rupert on the northern BC coast using seven, 100-wagon trains per day.

The plan was exposed last month by Greenpeace Canada researcher Keith Stewart who obtained documents about it by Access to Information legislation. The plan calls for transporting the oil using the very same track on which the Gainford accident occurred.

The oil-by-train threat is prompted by the ongoing "wall of opposition" in BC to the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline to Kitimat (south of Prince Rupert) that Enbridge says it wants to build. The menace made front-page news in Vancouver on October 16. Needless to say, the more the number of train accidents grows, the harder it will be to sell such a plan.

Opposition to tar sands pipelines and ocean-going tankers is so strong that the BC government has been obliged to posture as an ardent defender of strict safety standards [8] on any pipeline movement of oil or bitumen--all the while working furiously behind the scenes to push the project through.

THE NOTION that the movement of oil by rail can be made safe is a steady theme of the fossil-fuel promoting efforts of the federal, Alberta and BC governments. As the black clouds from the propane fires were billowing over Gainford on October 19, federal Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt was telling the Globe and Mail [9] that the rail transport system is safe. "Over 99.9 per cent of the time, the dangerous good makes it to its final destination," she said.

But she couldn't avoid the shadow that looms over all present and future talk of oil-train safety in North America--the July 6 oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 of the town's residents. "But all that being said, we still lost 47 people, 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," said Raitt. Raitt, a lawyer by training, was assigned as transport minister three months ago.

When a Toronto Star reporter asked CN to identify the shipper of the rail cars that derailed in Gainford, CN refused, asserting that such information is protected by "client privilege."]

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