The federal government will, for the first time, designate crude oil a highly dangerous substance and introduce tougher safety and testing measures for shipping oil by rail, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has told The Globe and Mail.
The fundamental shift, in response to mounting concerns about crude safety, comes after a Globe investigation detailed how the oil that exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Que., last summer was far more dangerous than regulators and shippers considered. The investigation found that numerous warning signs about the volatility, corrosiveness and content of the crude were ignored before the disaster.
Until now, the government considered crude flammable, but not highly explosive. However, massive fireballs erupted in Lac-Mégantic on July 6 after a train carrying 72 tankers of crude oil derailed, killing 47 people and levelling much of the downtown. It is the worst railway disaster in Canadian history.
Ms. Raitt said on Thursday there is a clear need for higher safety standards to deal with the massive growth in oil being shipped by rail through cities and towns. Transport Canada also plans to pursue oil shippers who are not properly testing crude before shipping it in light of the Globe investigation, which found shippers were loading oil on trains without knowing whether it was potentially dangerous, despite an order from Ottawa to scrutinize shipments.
"That Globe and Mail article bothered them [Transport Canada officials] as much as it bothered me," Ms. Raitt said. "What it has triggered is that reaction from Transport Canada making sure we focus more clearly" on fixing the problems.
"Everybody understands and knows what the urgency is," Ms. Raitt said. "We want to get these things moved as fast as possible."
Ms. Raitt called the change an "acknowledgment, intuitively, that [crude] is a dangerous good, and should be treated as such."
For decades, specialized safety procedures were required for dozens of explosive hazardous materials, but not for crude oil. The Lac-Mégantic disaster, and a similar explosive derailment last month in Alabama, have shown that particular types of oil, such as the light crude shipped from North Dakota, can be unusually volatile. One retired rail inspector told The Globe that he has been told some of the oil, which is regularly shipped to refineries in Canada, is "damn near close to gasoline."
Ms. Raitt said she has asked a special working group inside Transport Canada to come up with an Emergency Response Assistance Plan (ERAP) for crude oil. She has given the department until the end of January to formulate the plan, which will move oil to the highest level of dangerous goods, and expects the new regime governing oil shipments to be in place by mid-2014.
Those new rules will require railways and importers to have specific emergency plans for crude, including ensuring specialized response teams are available along the route in the event of an accident. The first ERAP was put in place for chlorine and propane after the 1979 derailment of a train in Mississauga led to the evacuation of about 220,000 people.
Such steps have been considered for crude oil, but never implemented. The Globe investigation detailed how Transport Canada over the past decade decided on several occasions not to treat oil as a particularly dangerous product. At least three times, in 2006, 2008 and 2012, the department decided not to add crude oil to the ERAP list. In doing so, a department official said the flammability of crude was taken into account. However, there is no evidence the explosiveness of oil was considered. Nor was the new kind of oil being shipped from North Dakota into Canada examined.
"Unfortunately, in the history of Transport Canada, we have seen conversations and consultations that seem to go on for 10 years, and 15 years," Ms. Raitt said. "So we gave them the end of January as the deadline …. From there I will be in a position to have the department finalize how we go about extending ERAPs to include crude oil."
The addition of crude to the list could ensure future accidents are better controlled. While the Lac-Mégantic disaster was unusually large and spiralled out of control almost immediately, emergency crews could have used more help as the town had to borrow specialized equipment from nearby cities just to extinguish the flames, which burned for days. An ERAP could save lives in future derailments.
Transport Canada must decide which forms of crude are on the list and whether rules will differ depending on volume of oil. In the past five years, a shortage of pipelines has resulted in unprecedented amounts of oil moving by rail, including trains of more than 100 tanker cars.
Ottawa has said it will require hazardous-materials shippers to carry more insurance to cover derailments, so towns like Lac-Mégantic are not left with a cleanup bill. That step was announced in the federal Throne Speech in October. The government said it would take "targeted action" to increase the safety of transporting dangerous goods.