Canadian and U.S. safety officials have issued unprecedented joint warnings that North American communities are at risk of exposure to deadly crude oil derailments if new safety regulations are not adopted.
Transportation safety agencies in both countries called for a suite of reforms Thursday, including new requirements for railways to analyze the risks associated with moving crude on specific routes and ensuring that specialized crews and fire retardants are available to combat explosive fires such as those that occurred in Lac-Mégantic, Que., Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick.
Deborah Hersman, chair of the Washington-based National Transportation Safety Board, said the agency is "concerned that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur" as a result of a 400-per-cent increase in oil shipments on the rails since 2005. "Our safety regulations need to catch up with this new reality," she said.
Her fears were echoed by her Canadian counterpart Wendy Tadros, chair of the Transportation Safety Board, who warned an Ottawa news conference Thursday about serious safety concerns linked to the "staggering" increase in crude shipped on the rails. New safety measures are needed to keep the communities located along rail lines safe, she said. The TSB issued its warning as part of a continuing investigation into the Lac-Mégantic crude-oil rail disaster, which killed 47 people last summer.
Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said in a statement that Ottawa would review the recommendations "on an urgent basis." A spokeswoman for the minister said she was unavailable for an interview on Thursday.
Ms. Tadros highlighted the need for more effective emergency-response supplies and protocols to cope with future derailments of oil cars. For example, she said, it was fortunate that a refinery within hours of Lac-Mégantic was able to bring in more than 30,000 litres of foam needed to battle explosive fires that burned for days. "But what if the specialized resources needed to fight the fire were not so accessible?" Ms. Tadros said. "We simply cannot leave this to chance."
A letter from the U.S. safety agency, addressed to the Federal Railway Administration, said railways are not required to develop detailed emergency response plans for crude oil. As a result, "the burden of responding to an accident and remediating the aftermath is still left with communities," the letter said.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the railway whose train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, was not required to develop a comprehensive plan and was "unprepared to respond to a worse case discharge," according to the letter. These shortcomings were highlighted in a Globe and Mail investigation in December.
Ms. Raitt has asked an advisory group to develop Emergency Response Assistance Plans (ERAPs) for crude oil by the end of this month, and told The Globe and Mail that she expects that plan to be in place by the middle of 2014. The advisory group is also looking at ERAPs for other flammable liquids including ethanol.
Claude Dauphin, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said the latest recommendations from the TSB underscore the need to act quickly on rail safety. He said he expects ERAPs to be put in place for all flammable liquids that pose a danger to communities they are moving through, adding, "We cannot afford to wait to make this important change."
The safety boards did not address the specific dangers of Bakken crude Thursday, but investigators have previously said that oil from the Bakken region, which covers North Dakota and parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, may be much more volatile than they initially believed.
Both boards called for swift changes to the DOT-111 tank cars commonly used to haul crude oil by rail, which have insufficient lining, external shields and venting to protect against the punctures or gas buildups that have been factors in recent fiery derailments involving crude. "A long and gradual phase-out of older model cars simply isn't good enough," Ms. Tadros said. "It leaves too much risk in the system."
NDP transport critic Olivia Chow called for a clear timeline for older-model DOT-111 tank cars to be phased out for volatile crude oil. "Phasing out doesn't mean it has to be done tomorrow, but you have to have a plan with a timeline," she said.
A spokeswoman from Ms. Raitt's office said she could not comment on a timeline for halting shipments of crude in the older model DOT-111 tank cars.
The U.S. safety agency also called for an audit system to be put in place to ensure crude oil is properly tested and classified before it is loaded onto trains. Transport Canada issued new rules on classification and testing for crude after the Lac-Mégantic disaster and has proposed a new regime that would require specific individuals sign off on test results.