White Rock Mayor Wayne Baldwin is heading to a national conference of municipal leaders later this month with rebellion on his agenda.
Mr. Baldwin is pushing Ottawa to reroute the growing number of rail shipments of dangerous goods that run through his densely populated seaside community. But he hasn’t received a response to his request last month for a meeting with federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt, and now he is searching for allies among similarly frustrated municipal leaders when the Federation of Canadian Municipalities soon meets in Niagara Falls.
“We are stuck, we have no power whatsoever,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “We can be a pest, but it would be really good to have a concerted effort.”
Even before the deadly rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Que., last July, he said he has been alarmed by the growing number of tank cars carrying crude oil, coal, hydrochloric acid, chlorine and other hazardous goods on the tracks that run next to the city’s sandy beach.
Some B.C. municipalities are banding together to develop their own spill-response plans, but bound by confidentiality agreements imposed by the railways, they cannot even tell their citizens what they are preparing for.
Dorit Mason, director of the North Shore Emergency Management Office, is working on a protocol to ensure a co-ordinated response to any rail disaster by police, fire and other first responders from West Vancouver, the city of North Vancouver and the district of North Vancouver.
“The spill response plan is being developed because we realize we have hazardous materials that can impact the public and the environment,” she said. That includes substances such as chlorine and sodium hydroxide, but she said she could not offer details.“I signed a confidentiality agreement so that [I can find out] what to prepare for.”
Between 2012 and 2013, the number of rail cars shipping heavy oil in B.C. has increased by almost 200 cent, while train derailments increased by 20 per cent. But the province does little to track rail-related spills, deferring to Ottawa.
On average, the provincial emergency program is notified of about 3,500 spills each year, but it does not break down the cause so that figure includes everything from train derailments to home-based oil spills.
B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak says her government is working with industry and Ottawa to develop a spill-response plan on land, but she maintained that the federal government is “entirely responsible” for rail shipments and the movement of hazardous goods.
The province recently released its latest white paper that proposes changes to response standards, environmental restoration requirements and government oversight. It is the second proposal – the first one, tabled late in 2012, was met by strong opposition from industry because of perceived duplication of regulation.
Ms. Polak said her government’s policy, when it does move forward, should address community concerns about rail shipments.
“Our land-based spills response is what is going to move this forward for local governments,” she said in an interview Wednesday. She said it is taking a long time to develop that new policy because there has been substantial consultation. “You’ve got to walk before you can run with this. What we have done with that policy paper is more substantial than anything we’ve had in the past.”
But Mayor Baldwin said it is difficult to plan for an emergency when the railways are not sharing enough information about the goods that are moving through his community. He said his town wasn’t warned when 120-car trains of crude oil from Dakota recently started to move through.
“When a spill happens – and it will – our first responders have to be equipped to deal with it. And at this point in time, we have no clue about some of the goods.”
He said the provincial government should be pushing harder to force changes in Ottawa. “They have a lot more authority than we do. They are not looking at what can be done to prevent a spill in the first place.”