But the use of buffer cars throughout the train could help prevent fires and explosions from spreading, or lessen their impact by parcelling up the shipment. However, this would cost the railways money since they’d have to run more empty cars.
“If you have 100 cars of hazardous materials, all you have to have is at least one buffer car – that’s it,” Mr. Pritchard said. Although the industry has morphed into something new, the rules and oversight have not kept pace. “The same rules I just described to you have been in place since I started my hazmat training back in the 1960s.”
No emergency plan
The facility where the Lac-Mégantic train was loaded with crude sits on the south side of New Town, N.D., a frontier boomtown on the prairies that can’t grow fast enough to supply sufficient hotels and restaurants to accommodate the influx of rig workers.
Last summer The Globe gained exclusive access to the site, which is where Miami-based World Fuel Services buys oil from drilling companies for shipment to refineries.
The site, with dual tracks for loading oil, is a testament to efficiency, but also an example of the greater risks created by this new era of oil trains. Each day, or every other day, a Canadian Pacific train backs about 40 empty tanker cars onto each track for filling. Large tanks holding Bakken crude drilled nearby dispense oil into the tanker cars. At the end of the process, engines hook up both 40-car loads and depart as an 80-car unit train. This is how the Lac-Mégantic train began its journey.
The amount of time it takes for crude to be pumped from the ground and loaded onto a train for shipping can be as little as three or four hours.
The reality is that not all crude is checked for critical characteristics such as flashpoint or boiling point, which provide insight into its explosiveness. The introduction of unit trains for oil has created an industry that is sometimes moving too quickly for careful inspection or testing.
But Mr. Pritchard has been to sites where the shippers knew they didn’t have to do extensive testing, because of the loose regulations.
“They didn’t have to,” Mr. Pritchard said. “If they said it was a flammable liquid, and they pretty much knew it was a flammable liquid, that’s all they had to say.”
The reason for such lax scrutiny stems from the government’s general lack of concern about shipping oil in general. For years, Ottawa never saw crude, even in mass quantities, as a more dangerous product.
In 2006, when internal auditors at Transport Canada began examining weaknesses in the department’s handling of disaster preparedness, they zeroed in on the little-known Emergency Response Assistance Plans system. These plans, which help first responders such as fire crews deal with emergencies involving hazardous materials, ensure critical equipment – such as specialized foam trucks for extinguishing flames and other hazmat gear – is kept at stops along the route to deal with an accident.
Any company that wants to ship dangerous goods must have an ERAP in place. But when the internal auditors probed how the system worked, according to federal documents, they found troubling weaknesses.
Of the 926 ERAPs the government had approved for hazardous materials shipping, 453 of them were issued with interim approval, requiring followup. However, Transport Canada failed to follow up on roughly half of those interim approvals. In one instance, “one company transported shipments of at least 3,000 litres of flammable propane gas for over 13 years with only interim approval of its plan,” the internal audit says.
Another weakness was what the program omitted. Although ERAPs were required for shipping everything from chlorine to gasoline, no emergency plan was needed for moving crude oil. The government did not see oil as potentially dangerous.
The auditors ordered an extensive review, and in 2008 Transport Canada pledged to fix the gaps in its ERAP system. Over the next five years, the department retrained staff and rewrote several of its policies. In April of this year, Transport Canada declared the job complete, and oil was left out of the program.
Three months later, 6.5 million litres of crude spilled from the train in Lac-Mégantic and erupted in a series of major explosions. The fire burned for days as emergency crews struggled to get the blaze under control, using equipment borrowed from nearby towns.
Responding to The Globe’s revelations of questionable testing standards by oil shippers, Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt announced last week that the federal government is stepping up its oversight, and is working with U.S. regulators to deploy inspectors to oil-loading facilities to scrutinize crude being shipped to Canada by rail.