A push by municipal leaders to know more about hazardous rail cargo rattling through their communities is raising security concerns in the federal government.
A string of derailments in recent months has the Federation of Canadian Municipalities worried that local fire, ambulance and police departments have not done the proper emergency planning or training for some of the situations they have faced.
Since the devastating crash in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in July that killed 47 people, municipal leaders have been asking Ottawa for more information in advance about what's on the rails so they can prepare.
"Local first responders are the ones on the front line when emergencies happen," federation president Claude Dauphin said in an interview.
Currently, "nobody knows" what might be on derailed train cars, said Mr. Dauphin, who is also mayor of Lachine, Que.
The municipal federation formed a rail-safety working group shortly after the Lac-Mégantic accident and has been asking Transport Canada for more clarity on the movement of hazardous goods.
They have run into resistance from federal officials worried that shared information could fall into the wrong hands and pose a security risk.
"We also as municipalities, the FCM, we share the concerns of the federal government on the potential security implications of sharing information on dangerous goods," Mr. Dauphin said. "But at the same time, our local governments are looking for an effective and secure mechanism for sharing basic information on dangerous goods."
The federation says government officials have been sympathetic and that talks are ongoing. A meeting with Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has been promised for this month.
Ms. Raitt's office did not respond to a request for comment, and officials with Transport Canada refused to discuss the nature of their security issues, or even whether there is room for negotiation with the FCM.
"Municipalities can ask rail companies for information regarding the types of dangerous goods materials that are being transported," spokeswoman Karine Martel said in an e-mail. "In Canada, the transportation of dangerous goods is strictly regulated under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, 1992."
Rail carriers are required to share information, such as the rail shipping document, with Transport Canada "immediately following an accident," Ms. Martel added. That information is then shared with emergency responders through the Canadian Transport Emergency Centre.
Some municipal officials are unimpressed with that process – most notably Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose city had its second serious derailment in just over three months on Sept. 11.
"City staff are risking their lives to deal with these emergencies and we are still unable to get specific information on what is on these trains in order ensure the safety of our residents," Mr. Nenshi said last week.
Officials with the municipal federation say the group does not want details of individual cargos in advance.
"We're not talking about specific manifests for every train that rolls through town," said an FCM official involved in the talks who is not authorized to comment on the record and spoke on condition of anonymity. "That being said, after an emergency takes place, we need to be able to get the key information to respond in an emergency. And we need to have a basic understanding of what general movements would look like so that we can do our planning. Everything is tied back to our planning process."
Municipal officials in Quebec are also concerned that Ottawa is delaying the release of rail safety reports on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the carrier at the centre of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.
Sherbrooke and Magog officials were told to file a request under the Access to Information Act to the records, then were told the wait would be eight months.
Montreal's La Presse newspaper, which reported the incident, says it received 10 years worth of reports on MM&A's safety record from the U.S. government three weeks after asking.