A defective portion of track initially suspected of causing a CN freight train to derail more than two years ago has been confirmed as the culprit that sent hundreds of thousands of litres of oil gushing into an Alberta lake, a Transportation Safety Board report released yesterday says.
When 43 cars jumped the tracks near Wabamun, about 65 kilometres west of Edmonton, about 700,000 litres of bunker C or heavy fuel oil and another 88,000 litres of pole-treating oil spilled onto the ground and into the lake, forcing an evacuation and resulting in environmental and property damage.
While the accident had nothing to do with the dangerous goods or the operation of the train, which was headed to Vancouver from Edmonton on Aug. 3, 2005, the safety board said Canadian National Railway Co. and the province should have co-ordinated better to share information and to implement emergency response plans.
"The management of the spill would have been more efficient," the report concluded.
The board also called on Ottawa to re-examine its policies related to rail quality and strength, and equipment used for testing track and assessing defects.
Many of the recommendations have already been implemented or are being examined, according to industry and governments.
The board, which investigates accidents involving trains, aircraft, boats and pipelines, is not allowed to assign blame, but it can make recommendations to prevent similar accidents.
Tracie Mandreck, who owns a lakefront home and the Whitewood Sands B&B near the accident scene, had hoped to see CN get a "slap down." She said the company's priority initially seemed to be getting the trains running again instead of moving quickly to deal with one of the worst oil spills in Canadian history.
"They had their backs turned to the oil pouring into the lake," said the long-time resident, who received a permit to open her bed and breakfast just three weeks before the derailment.
Last year, CN made a $7.5-million compensation offer to about 1,600 households affected by the derailment, up from an original offer of $2.5-million.
Most residents - including Ms. Mandreck's family, which has received nearly $30,000 in compensation - have accepted the offer, but some, including the Paul First Nation, have chosen to file lawsuits instead.
CN is scheduled to appear in court in February on the provincial environmental charge of failing to respond properly to the accident. No federal charges have been filed.
Yesterday, CN chief executive officer Hunter Harrison issued a statement lauding the board for a "very thorough investigation" and noted that the company has already taken steps to cut the risk of similar accidents.
"At the time of the derailment, we made several commitments to clean up the lake to agreed environmental standards, to fairly and promptly compensate those affected and to work with all stakeholders to restore full use of the lake," Mr. Harrison said. "We have fulfilled or continue to make substantial progress on each of these."
Gerry Predy, medical officer of health for Capital Health, isn't sure when the health authority will lift advisories asking people to not swim in the lake if they see oil or consume fish from the lake.
"We are taking this year-by-year," he said. "We won't lift our advisory until everything is clear."
The province quickly set up an emergency response team after the derailment and is working with the federal government to improve reaction to disasters.
The derailment occurred around a slight curve in the track, where investigators recovered pieces of the rail and found defects known as "detail fractures" or cracks that are perpendicular to the running direction.
That section of rail was tested 11 times in the preceding two years and either no defects were found or repairs were made. Still, it was slated for replacement the next year, and if it had been removed earlier or a better quality rail had been used, the accident may have been prevented, officials said.
But even all that diligent testing isn't foolproof, the board said in reiterating its 1993 recommendation that Transport Canada look at its rail procedures and equipment for identifying flaws.
Transport Canada spokeswoman Fiona MacLeod said Ottawa addressed those recommendations, but it is in the midst of re-examining equipment and procedures.
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