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The federal government says it doesn’t know enough about how, when and where dangerous goods move through the Canadian North, highlighting the potential risks of a major spill or other disaster.

As a result, the possible effects on public safety and the environment are also unclear, Transport Canada acknowledges.

The department is commissioning a study to help fill in the knowledge gaps and improve readiness when it comes to movement of goods ranging from explosives and flammable liquids, to infectious substances and radioactive materials.

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The effort will focus on regions north of the 55th parallel as well as on more southerly, but isolated, areas in eastern Manitoba and northern Ontario, says a newly issued call for bids to carry out the study.

The overall goal is to fully identify the hazardous substances transported throughout these areas and the major hubs that link to relevant airports, marine ports, ice roads, railroads, mines, refining sites, manufacturing plants and warehouses.

The information will help Transport Canada pinpoint potential risks and make decisions concerning safety regulations and compliance, the tender notice says.

A stark reminder of the difficulty of moving goods in northern Canada came when the only rail line to Churchill, Man., was flooded and it became impossible to deliver freight overland until an ice road was built.

There are also virtually no freight rail lines north of the 60th parallel, except for rail access to Hay River in the Northwest Territories, the notice says. Considering the seasonal nature of ice roads and ports, there are limited routes for movement of dangerous goods in or out of northern Canada and other remote areas, it adds.

The tenuous nature of northern transportation systems mean there are “gaps in information” about the kinds of dangerous goods transported, the volume of shipments and the sort of emergency response systems available.

“We continuously examine ways to make transportation in Canada safer for all and this assessment is part of our effort to ensure even greater knowledge regarding the handling of goods in the North,” said Transport Canada spokeswoman Annie Joannette.

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She declined to provide additional information given the competitive tender process underway.

The most valuable element of the exercise could be the educational process of better informing people about the risks of transporting dangerous substances, said Rob Huebert, a northern studies expert at the University of Calgary.

“It’s always about the follow-through,” he added. “Because you can have all these exercises through the ying-yang, but if you’re not setting up the system properly and then maintaining the system, what’s the point of having it?”

Until now, Canada’s emergency preparedness efforts have largely been focused on maritime response and less on land-based accidents, he said.

“I think a lot of people always forget that the North is an area that is just so different from every place else.”

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