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Politics Bakken oil shipments of any size need emergency plans, report urges Ottawa

Crews work in the area of the derailed tanker cars in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 14, 2013.

PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Cities, firefighters and industry are calling on Transport Canada to require companies that ship as little as one car of volatile Bakken oil by rail to have detailed emergency response plans.

The recommendation is in a new report commissioned after the devastating accident in Lac-Mégantic, Que., that Transport Minister Lisa Raitt expects to make public later this week. The report also recommends new emergency plans for ethanol and other highly dangerous flammable liquids, The Globe and Mail has learned. It was written by a Transport Canada advisory group that includes representatives from Canadian municipalities, first responders, railways and the oil industry.

The group was asked to look at emergency response protocols for flammable liquids after a derailment in Lac-Mégantic sent tank cars full of Bakken crude careening off the tracks last July, causing explosions that killed 47 people. Firefighters in the small Quebec town had to get the specialized foam needed to fight the raging fire from a refinery nearly 200 kilometres away.

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Several months after the accident, Ms. Raitt pledged to make emergency response assistance plans (ERAPs) mandatory for crude oil by the middle of this year. ERAPs can require shippers and importers to ensure that foam trucks and other specialized equipment are available along a train's route and that local first responders have training.

People familiar with the advisory group's report say it recommends ERAPs for all shipments of volatile Bakken crude – not just for longer trains, which can consist of 120 or more tank cars. It also suggests that emergency plans be developed for ethanol and other highly dangerous flammable liquids, and says comparatively less-dangerous flammable liquids should be studied further to determine if more ERAPs are needed.

The idea of requiring an ERAP for companies that ship loads as small as a single tank car of Bakken crude appears to go beyond recent calls from Canada's Transportation Safety Board for emergency plans to be established for routes on which "large volumes" of liquid hydrocarbons are shipped. After the accident in Lac-Mégantic, The Globe and Mail documented how crude from the Bakken region, which covers North Dakota and parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, can be significantly more volatile than traditional crude.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it would fine three oil companies a total of $93,000 for failing to properly classify the Bakken crude they were shipping. The department also announced it would expand its testing program to look at other factors that can make crude oil particularly dangerous, including vapour pressure, corrosivity and hydrogen sulfide content.

The advisory group's report to Transport Canada suggests creating a single body that would respond to major crude oil emergencies, according to people familiar with the report. A similar mechanism currently exists for liquefied petroleum gas shipments such as propane and butane.

A spokesman for Canadian National Railway Co. said the company supports the idea of requiring ERAPs for the transportation of crude oil. A spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. said it supports "any steps to make rail transportation even safer" but would leave decisions about the detailed emergency plans to shippers. Both declined to comment directly on what volume of crude oil should trigger an ERAP requirement, or the concept of paying into a common organization.

Sources told The Globe the report says more resources may be needed for CANUTEC, an emergency response centre that operates like a 911 service for incidents involving dangerous goods, and suggests that local first responders be allowed to ask CANUTEC to activate an emergency response plan if a railway takes too long to do so.

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Advisory group reports dealing with DOT-111 tank cars and the classification of dangerous goods are also expected to be made public this week.

Last week, the railway whose train derailed in Lac-Mégantic filed a complaint with a U.S. bankruptcy court, claiming it would have behaved differently had it known the crude oil it was carrying was particularly volatile. The complaint alleges companies that owned the oil and arranged for it to be transported were negligent in identifying the potential dangers of the crude and in placing the product in older-model DOT-111 tank cars, which have been criticized as prone to rupture and corrosion.

"Had defendants properly classified, identified and labelled the train's crude oil cargo, [Montreal, Maine & Atlantic] could and would have taken steps that would have avoided the derailment," the complaint says.

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