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The Globe and Mail

Lac-Mégantic mayor takes rail-safety case to Washington

Lac-Mégantic, Que., Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche will take part in a briefing for U.S. lawmakers on North American rail safety on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The mayor of Lac-Mégantic is in Washington this week to make the case for harmonizing U.S. and Canadian rail safety laws after a series of massive explosions involving trains carrying crude oil.

Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche met Monday with senior officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration and is expected to participate in a briefing for U.S. lawmakers Tuesday to discuss rail safety in North America. She is travelling with a coalition on rail safety that includes municipal representatives from Quebec, New Brunswick, Maine and Illinois.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Roy-Laroche said she wants to see ongoing involvement from local officials in the development of new rules on rail safety. The transportation of crude oil by rail has been under scrutiny since a train jumped the tracks in Lac-Mégantic last July, causing a series of explosions that killed 47 people and flattened dozens of buildings.

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Earlier this year, U.S. officials warned that crude oil from the Bakken formation, which straddles North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, can be more volatile than conventional oil, a quality that makes it more likely to explode if a rail accident occurs. In response to growing fears about moving Bakken oil by rail, authorities in the United States and Canada have introduced a number of regulatory changes that include new rules for testing crude before it is moved by rail.

"I think that, actually, we have made some progress since the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic," Ms. Roy-Laroche said. "But the rule-making really has to be a constant preoccupation, a priority, for Transport Canada and for the Department of Transportation here in Washington."

She said one of the changes she is eager to see governments tackle is the development of new rules for DOT-111 rail cars, which have been critized for being prone to puncture and corrosion. Both the Canadian and U.S. governments have said they are looking at regulatory changes that could include a gradual phase-out of the older-model cars for moving crude oil.

Ms. Roy-Laroche said harmonization of rail safety rules in Canada and the U.S. is important because of the integrated nature of the North American rail networks. She added that municipalities should be closely involved in the development of new regulations since they are the first to deal with an emergency and represent the level of government closest to citizens.

During a closed-door meeting on Monday with Joseph Szabo, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, and Victor Mendez, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Ms. Roy-Laroche said she discussed how Lac-Mégantic was affected by the accident last summer, including "all the human impacts, the environmental impacts, and the economic impacts that will take the community many years to recover [from]."

An official from the Department of Transportation said Ms. Roy-Laroche and other mayors were briefed on the department's rail safety efforts, including a recent agreement with the rail industry on the transportation of crude oil.

Vicki May Hamm, the mayor of Magog, Que., said one of the changes the rail safety coalition is asking for is more immediate information on the hazardous goods passing through their territory. Ottawa began requiring railways to provide historical information last fall, in an effort to help municipal first responders recognize trends in what is being moved and better prepare for the possibility of an accident, which Ms. Hamm said was a good step but not enough.

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"I want to know real-time what's going through my community. I need to know," she said in a phone call from Washington, where she is part of the same delegation as Ms. Roy-Laroche.

Ms. Hamm said she realizes many of the rail safety changes will take time. "I think that the message we really want to get through is that local governments have to be a part of the solution. And I think it's getting through," she said.

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