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Transport Canada puts risks of hazardous rail shipments under new scrutiny

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver speak at a joint press conference in Vancouver on Dec. 3, 2013.


Transport Canada is launching a study to analyze the risks linked with transporting hazardous goods across North America amid growing concern about the safety of moving potentially explosive crude oil by rail.

The federal department is facing pressure to take action on rail safety after a runaway train hauling crude oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic in July, causing a series of explosions that killed 47 people and destroyed the downtown. A Globe and Mail investigation found that despite a significant increase in the quantity of oil being moved by rail, Transport Canada never analyzed the changing risks associated with the practice.

A request for proposals published by Transport Canada on Tuesday shows the department is planning to expand its risk analysis program for the movement of dangerous goods "to allow it to more effectively monitor and assess changes in risk due to changing trends in supply chain, volumes, routes, etc."

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The information from the study could lead to the creation of a risk map that would allow Transport Canada to identify areas of higher concern and prioritize its resources, the document states. The study will look at all modes of transportation, including rail.

Tests by U.S. regulators have found that some oil drawn from the Bakken region – located in North Dakota and parts of southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba – was unusually flammable and frequently moved in tank cars that were designed for less volatile liquids.

Speaking at an announcement about marine tanker safety on Tuesday, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt insisted that railways are still safe.

"Can you transport safely by rail? Absolutely," she said. "99.997 per cent of the time the dangerous good makes it to its end. What we're trying to do is ensure we get that risk down even lower, and we're going to continue to work on that matter."

Asked about the origins of the number Ms. Raitt cited, a spokeswoman from Transport Canada said the 99.997-per-cent figure is based on a departmental analysis of data from the department, Statistics Canada and the railway industry.

Ms. Raitt said the department has hired more inspectors and passed regulations to improve railway safety.

"The reality is, as I said last week, there's no guarantee that there's ever going to be enough money in order to have every inspector in every place at every time," Ms. Raitt said. "So you deal with risk analysis and, obviously, we have indicated this is a high priority for us in terms of the transportation of dangerous goods. We have lots of people looking at that particular issue in that particular part of the country."

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Claude Mongeau, the head of Canadian National Railway, said Tuesday that the design of crude-oil tank cars should be changed to avoid another accident like the one that occurred in Lac-Mégantic. The DOT-111 tank cars used to haul oil have been criticized for being susceptible to corrosion and ruptures, and Ms. Raitt has said in the past that she is in talks with her U.S. counterpart over the issue.

In response to the Lac-Mégantic accident, Transport Canada issued new regulations requiring shipping companies to test oil before it is moved by rail. The new rules also state that companies can classify oil in the most volatile category permissible and ship it until testing is complete. Asked to explain the apparent contradiction in the rules, a spokeswoman from Transport Canada said they are meant to allow companies to continue to ship oil if they have not yet received test results.

"Companies are required by law to test the oil before it is shipped. If the company has not received the result of the tests first, they are obligated to classify their shipment to the highest packaging group level," Andrea Moritz wrote in an e-mail.

That means companies are still permitted to move oil by rail before they have received information about how explosive the crude might be.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More


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