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100 years after Halifax: Are we safer from chemical explosions?

Kevin Quigley is the scholarly director at the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance at Dalhousie University and co-author of Too Critical to Fail: How Canada Manages Threats to Critical Infrastructure.

On Dec. 6, 1917, poor storage and unsafe transportation of picric acid and TNT led to the largest explosion the world had seen prior to explosions of the nuclear bombs during the Second World War. The Halifax explosion killed nearly 2,000, injured more than 9,000 and left 25,000 without adequate shelter. Despite the devastation, no one was ever successfully prosecuted for failures leading to the explosion. One hundred years later we might ask, are we safer today from an accidental explosion of dangerous chemicals? The answer is yes, but important weaknesses remain.

Our attention typically focuses on the transportation of dangerous chemicals, but the storage of dangerous chemicals often flies below the radar. Chemicals are pervasive. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) registry lists 4,720 facilities in Canada that use or store above-threshold quantities of hazardous chemicals. Many of these exist in urban or suburban areas. There is also increased urbanization. At the beginning of the 20th century, 45 per cent of Canadians lived in urban centres. Today, more than 83 per cent do.

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The increased presence of dangerous chemicals and urbanization are a toxic mix, because accidents happen. In 2008, there was a series of explosions at the Sunrise Propane facility in Toronto; it contributed to the deaths of two people and forced thousands to evacuate. In 2012, the Neptune Technologies and Bioressources plant near Sherbrooke exploded, burning 15,000 litres of acetone, killing three workers and injuring 18 others. Though rare, disasters continue to occur.

Like all risks, our evaluation of the dangers must also take the benefits into account. We all depend on chemicals; chlorine, for example, makes our water potable. The chemical sector is also a big employer, employing more than 80,000 people in Canada.

Increased urbanization also grows the tax base of cities, which builds infrastructure and pays for important services.

Trust in the industry has been precarious for decades. A 1986 public-opinion poll indicated that 48 per cent of Canadians felt that the chemical industry's risks outweighed its benefits. More than 10 years later, 40 per cent of Canadian respondents to an international poll thought that the chemical industry was doing "very little" or "nothing at all" to reduce its impact on the environment. In 2015, the Edelman research firm reported that in a survey of 27 countries, the chemicals sector was one of the least-trusted.

This lack of trust keeps the industry on its toes. Across the Western world, it has bolstered its safety strategy in the wake of high-profile disasters, such as the ones in Seveso, Italy, in 1976, and in Bhopal, India, in 1984. The rise of environmental concerns has also increased safety measures. There are now industry-led initiatives, like Responsible Care, which establish and enforce standards and share best practices.

Beyond the moral imperative of managing dangerous chemicals safely, there is self-interest at play: Within 30 minutes of the Neptune plant explosion, the company's share value dropped by 10 per cent.

Still, there are important limits to what industry will reveal to the public about the vulnerabilities of chemical plants, and not all organizations are members of voluntary safety initiatives such as Responsible Care.

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This leads us to the issue of transparency and accountability. In Canada, responsibility for chemicals is shared between the federal and provincial governments. As a result, the regulatory regime has grown haphazardly. It coalesces around an array of federal and provincial legislation on numerous chemical-risk-related subjects, including the environment, emergency management and crime and terrorism. This makes accountability unco-ordinated and opaque.

Municipal land-use planning is also a key consideration. Growing urban sprawl leads to housing developments in or near areas that permit the storage of dangerous chemicals, as was the case with the Sunrise Propane plant and the Neptune Technologies and Bioresources facility. Academics have noted that the placement of chemical facilities is an issue that is "falling through the cracks" in the Canadian legislative framework.

Public inquiries following disasters can help shed light on poor practice in a timely manner. Trials and insurance claims typically follow these events, but they are slow and do not include systemic reviews. After a series of explosions in 2005 at the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal in Britain, which injured 43 and decimated sections of a town, the U.K. government promptly initiated an independent investigation that maintained a comprehensive website with detailed information about its activities and its findings, and included numerous interim reports. In the aftermath of the Sunrise Propane explosion, in contrast, the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal prepared what it described as a "technically complex" internal report that was only available to the public in redacted form upon request.

The absence of independent public inquiries restricts opportunities for democratic oversight of the regulatory regime; it prevents the community from speaking and learning about these risks, holding those responsible to account for highly consequential failures and checking the progress of those responsible for implementing recommendations. In this sense, 100 years after the Halifax explosion, problems persist.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this column said the explosion in the Halifax Harbour 100 years ago was the largest human-made explosion before the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.. In fact, it was the largest before an atomic bomb was exploded. The Trinity test explosion of the plutonium bomb at White Sands, New Mexico, was larger and preceded the bombs dropped in Japan.
In the years after the 1917 Halifax Explosion that killed nearly 2,000 people, 101-year-old survivor Jim Cuvelier says the blast wasn’t talked about often. A large memorial service is planned for the disaster’s centenary on Dec. 6. The Canadian Press
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