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About 700,000 litres of heavy fuel oil were spilled in 2005 after a CN train derailment at Lake Wabamun, Alta. (Bull Purdy for The Globe and Mail)
About 700,000 litres of heavy fuel oil were spilled in 2005 after a CN train derailment at Lake Wabamun, Alta. (Bull Purdy for The Globe and Mail)

With pipelines under attack, railways lead race to move oil Add to ...

“We agree that if you’re going to move oil, pipelines are safer than rail or truck,” Mr. Lake says. He adds: “That does cause us some concern.”

The Wabamun train spill

Shortly after 5 a.m. on Aug. 3, 2005, Jack Latham woke to a bang. He lives just outside Wabamun, Alta., a small town west of Edmonton crossed by a Canadian National Railway Co. track that sees nearly three dozen trains a day. His house is so near the track that in summer, he and his wife sit on his deck and wave to passing engineers.

“We are as close to the tracks as we can legally be,” he says. “When we have company it’s big excitement: ‘Here comes a train!’ ”

In 2005, the excitement came for an altogether different reason. When Mr. Latham got up to take a look in the early morning darkness, he discovered a rail car lying on its side on his property. A short distance away, tanker cars carrying Bunker C, a heavy fuel oil used by ships, lay on their sides with product draining out of gashes big enough to walk through. In total, 700,000 litres of Bunker C gushed out, much of it into Wabamun Lake, a popular outdoor destination.

“When we first got there it was just overwhelming,” says Bill Purdy, a town councillor and former MLA who was then deputy chief of the local volunteer fire department. He grabbed a piece of lath and stuck it into the oil pooled along the shore. It was six inches deep. At the end of a pier 50 feet out, it was two to three inches deep. The smell “was terrible.”

He worried that his community might never recover. The community was worried, too: Residents accused CN of being more concerned with fixing the track than cleaning the spill. It didn’t help that CN didn’t have enough of the proper containment boom. Some had to be flown in on a cargo plane. A furious debate arose, prompting then-chief executive oficer Hunter Harrison to print a full-page apology in local newspapers. The company eventually paid $132-million to clean up the spill and settle claims. It also paid $1.4-million in fines, and made changes to its spill procedures and equipment.

The company now has emergency response caches in 39 places across Western Canada. CP has more than 10 caches, plus 17 spill-response boxes at rail yards, in addition to several containers with equipment and a network of consultants it can call upon in an emergency.

CN has also begun a “geographic response planning” pilot program along the Skeena River in northwestern B.C. where it has gone out in advance to identify river access points and important features, like cultural sites and environmentally-sensitive areas. Compiling that information can substantially improve a spill response, and CN has, in conjunction with the federal and provincial government, begun to work its way eastward from the coast.

And Wabamun has recovered. Those who live there haven’t seen any trace of oil in recent years. What they have seen is more CN.

“They’re sure spending a lot more time on the tracks, checking the tracks out. And we regularly see them out doing track repair,” Mr. Latham says.

He acknowledges that there is risk in more oil moving by train. “A properly designed and built pipeline is still a safer method of moving oil,” he says. More oil on rails means more trains, and “if they don’t maintain the tracks, something is going to happen,” he says.

But Mr. Latham is an Albertan. His father worked on some of the province’s earliest oil plays; he ran a business delivering propane. He knows the environmental and first nations obstacles that have confronted the construction of new pipelines, and he knows the financial pain that has resulted. That pain is not just hurting companies. It’s hurting his home province, which has warned of rising deficits, partly as a result of low oil prices.

And so as Mr. Latham looks out at the trains that rush past his front windows, he sees the tracks beneath as an avenue for help.

“If industry has to take over and do an end-run around the Indians and the politicians, we have to do that to get the oil moved,” he says. “That’s my view.”

The spill comparison

Railways and pipelines speak different languages. Trains move commodities by the ton or carload. Pipelines move oil by the barrel. So comparing the two can be tough. But those who have tried – including the rail industry itself – have shown that trains are substantially more prone to hazardous materials accidents.

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