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Canada Ottawa must improve rail safety or disasters will be the ‘new normal,’ Greenpeace says

CN spokesman Louis-Antonie Paquin says three of the nine propane tankers remain on fire, at least 12 hours after the early morning derailment near Gainford, Alta., on Oct. 19, 2013.

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Train disasters such as Saturday's derailment in Alberta will become the "new normal" unless Ottawa tightens safety rules for shipping dangerous goods by rail, Greenpeace Canada warned.

A CN train carrying crude oil and gas went off the tracks overnight in a hamlet west of Edmonton, sparking a massive fire that reportedly triggered two explosions.

It's the third major derailment in the province in recent months, at a time when rail safety is increasingly under scrutiny.

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Greenpeace said given the industry's outdated safety standards, it's only a matter of time until disaster strikes again.

Keith Stewart, the organization's climate and energy campaign co-ordinator, said the federal government has taken some steps since July's devastating derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., but not enough to mitigate the risks.

He wants Ottawa to launch a comprehensive review of the safety regulations for transporting oil, whether by train or other means.

"Unless they're actually willing to bring in serious new safety measures for oil by rail, this will become the new normal," he said Saturday in a phone interview from Vancouver.

"Three years ago, there was almost no oil being moved by rail. It's been growing incredibly rapidly and it's projected to keep growing that way and the safety standards in Canada simply have not kept up to the new ways to move new kinds of oil," he said.

"I think what's happened is we're putting more and more oil on an infrastructure that is aging and wasn't really designed for it in the first place and that's increasing risks."

There were no reports of injuries in Saturday's derailment, but the tiny community of Gainford was evacuated due to the fire.

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Ben West, a campaigner with environmental group Forest Ethics, said the latest derailment raises questions about the continued use of older oil train cars he called more vulnerable to spilling upon derailment.

"In the short term, with the existing traffic, we really should be looking at what kind of train cars are being used. Some of these old cars seem really problematic."

"It is possible with newer cars to at least try to make sure the fuel inside of the cars isn't making its way into the local environment" when a derailment occurs, he said.

West said the federal government is allowing the expansion of oil-by-rail as a substitute method to move more fuel at a time when major pipeline projects face major hurdles, such as complex approval processes and fierce opposition.

"To try to get around the pipeline process by pushing more rail through, especially with the implications of it, seems highly irresponsible to me and fundamentally undemocratic without the kind of oversight and public process we've had around the pipelines."

Rail safety has been a hot button issue since tank cars filled with oil exploded after rolling into Lac-Mégantic – a catastrophe that ravaged the town's historic core and claimed an estimated 47 lives.

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Transport Canada issued several emergency orders in response to the tragedy, requiring that at least two crew members must work trains that carry dangerous goods.

In addition, no locomotive attached to one or more loaded tank cars transporting dangerous materials can be left unattended on a main track.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities also formed a rail-safety working group shortly after the Lac-Mégantic derailment and asked Transport Canada for more information about the transportation of hazardous goods.

But federal officials have cautioned that such information could pose a safety risk if it fell into the wrong hands.

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