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Derailed train cars burn in Plaster Rock, N.B., Wednesday, Jan.8, 2014. (Tom Bateman/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Derailed train cars burn in Plaster Rock, N.B., Wednesday, Jan.8, 2014. (Tom Bateman/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ottawa to strengthen rail-safety rules Add to ...

Ottawa will require railways to prepare for catastrophic explosions and other disasters by making emergency response plans mandatory for all crude-oil shipments that pass through Canada, The Globe and Mail has learned.

The federal government will also require a rapid phase-out of the older-model tank cars that are commonly used to haul crude oil by rail, according to sources familiar with a package of major policy reforms that will be announced on Wednesday. Older-model DOT-111 tank cars have been criticized as prone to puncture and gas buildup, and shippers are expected to be given between two and three years to switch to newer models for certain flammable good shipments, including oil.

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The changes come after a Globe investigation showed that regulators in Canada and the United States had done little to respond to a massive increase in shipments of crude oil before the devastating explosion in Lac-Mégantic last July, where 47 people were killed when an oil-laden train derailed and exploded in the worst railway disaster in modern Canadian history. The train was carrying oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota, which officials have since acknowledged is more volatile and prone to exploding than traditional crude.

Since the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, oil train accidents have caused massive fires in Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick. However, unlike Lac-Mégantic, all of those accidents occurred in unpopulated areas and none resulted in any deaths.

The new rules are part of the government’s response to recommendations from Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the causes of the Lac-Mégantic derailment. In January, the agency made three interim recommendations, calling for better standards for tank cars carrying flammable liquids, new emergency response plans for large volumes of crude oil, and detailed risk analysis for railways moving dangerous goods.

Sources familiar with the government’s plans, who spoke to The Globe on condition of anonymity, said the department is expected to make changes related to all of the TSB’s recommendations.

New emergency response assistance plans for crude oil would require railways to ensure that specialized crews and fire retardants are available along rail routes so they can quickly combat explosive fires such as the one that occurred in Lac-Mégantic. A source with knowledge of the government’s plans said the emergency plans will also be required for ethanol and will come into effect for trains carrying as little as a single tank car of crude oil or ethanol.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt told The Globe in December that she expected an emergency response plan for crude oil to be in place by the middle of 2014.

Speaking to reporters in January, TSB chair Wendy Tadros said the circumstances of the Lac-Mégantic disaster highlighted the need for better emergency response protocols. Firefighters were forced to rely on a refinery located a couple hours from Lac-Mégantic, which was able to bring in more than 30,000 litres of foam needed to battle explosive fires that burned for days. “But what if the specialized resources needed to fight the fire were not so accessible?” Ms. Tadros said. “We simply cannot leave this to chance.”

The TSB also called for a rapid phasing out of older-model DOT-111 tank cars for flammable liquids because the cars have insufficient lining, external shields and venting to protect against punctures and gas buildups. Ms. Tadros would not specify a timeline when the TSB’s recommendations were released but said at the time that a “long and gradual phase-out of older model cars simply isn’t good enough.”

A source with knowledge of the new policy said the government will require older tank cars to be phased out in either two or three years – a significantly shorter time frame than has been suggested by rail car suppliers. In addition, Transport Canada will require a rapid, 30-day phase-out for any older tank cars that lack proper reinforcement on the bottom shell, the source said. Those changes are expected to apply to certain flammable goods shipments, including oil.

The industry has been manufacturing DOT-111s to an improved standard, known as the CPC 1232 design, since October, 2011. Officials are also considering an even safer standard, but specifications have not yet been developed.

The move means Canada will make the changes to DOT-111 tankers ahead of the United States, which has initiated a rule-making process on the matter but has not yet specified a time frame.

The government will also require railways to conduct risk analyses that include a look at the added risks of moving dangerous goods through municipalities and past important facilities such as water supplies, sources said. As a result, railways could be required to reduce their speed if they are carrying crude or ethanol through some higher-risk areas.

Follow on Twitter: @kimmackrael

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