Transport Canada says the safety of the shipment of dangerous goods in Canada is steadily improving, but said Thursday it will take two years to address all of the gaps in its safety system.
The federal department is responsible for ensuring safety in the movement of dangerous goods such as crude oil, petroleum and radioactive materials by rail, road, ship and air through inspections and monitoring under its Transportation of Dangerous Goods Program.
Last month interim environment and sustainable development commissioner Andrew Hayes revealed that companies subject to safety regulations aren’t yet legally required to register with Transport Canada, thousands of locations that may need monitoring go without, companies operate without finalized emergency response plans and Transport Canada doesn’t always follow up on companies found in breach of safety rules.
Transport Canada deputy minister Michael Keenan told MPs at the House of Commons public accounts committee the issues raised by the interim commissioner are in large part being addressed as the department transforms how it operates “with a top priority on shifting from paper-based to digital work processes.”
For example, the department said in a follow-up e-mail to The Globe and Mail that regulations still require a paper shipping document to accompany most dangerous goods. Because those can be lost or destroyed it can “cause delays in emergency response.” The department said Transport Canada has a pilot program to test the use of electronic shipping documents, which will be completed in the spring of 2022.
Over the last decade and since the 2013 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Que., where a runaway train exploded, killing 47 people, Mr. Keenan said the department has introduced a risk-based inspection plan and modernized safety regulations.
“We see in general a decrease in the risk and an improvement in the safety performance," he said.
Last month Mr. Hayes found the department had yet to follow through on recommendations made by his office almost a decade ago.
“Transport Canada doesn’t have the information that that would be needed to have a clear picture of the safety across the country," Mr. Hayes said in October.
In an interview with The Globe after Mr. Keenan’s committee appearance, Mr. Hayes noted that while the department is digitizing, his audit found several problems with the data in its new systems.
“The information is not exact, it’s got problems in terms of accuracy and in terms of completeness and it’s out of date," Mr. Hayes said.
For example, the report found that the system used to track violations and risk understates risk level because only one violation can be scored for each area of the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. Mr. Keenan said the department is developing “more sophisticated digital databases” that will address that and avoid data-quality problems. Inspectors are also being given “handheld devices” for direct data entry, Mr. Keenan said.
The audit also found that in 30 per cent of cases that were reviewed, Transport Canada did not follow up with companies found in breach of safety standards to ensure they had corrected the issue. The audit is based on data up to the end of 2019. Mr. Keenan told the committee that since then, his department has reduced that number to 8 per cent, and it will hit zero “in the spring of 2021.”
The report also says that as of December, 2019, one in 10 safety certificates for facilities that manufacture, test and repair transport containers had expired, and Transport Canada did not know whether those facilities kept operating without a certificate. Mr. Keenan said the department is implementing a “more rigorous oversight process” to ensure that companies aren’t operating with expired registrations.
The report also found that 21 per cent of companies that transport or import dangerous goods at a “high risk to public safety” were operating under only interim approval for their emergency response plans. Mr. Keenan said it will take two years to address that.
Mr. Hayes told the committee that finalizing the emergency plans for companies is “very important” and once all recommendations are acted on, the transport department will be able to “mitigate some risks” in the transport of dangerous goods.
If they’re not acted on, “the consequences can be very severe," he said.
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.