Chemicals, not oil, riskiest rail cargo on Metro Vancouver trains

Poisonous, explosive gases roll on trains through densely populated Lower Mainland neighbourhoods

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis.

Authorities are playing down concern over potential for a deadly rail disaster in the Lower Mainland after a runaway train laden with crude oil destroyed much of the Quebec town of Lac Megantic.

Shipping oil by rail has been on the upswing as pressure grows to get landlocked Alberta oil out to global markets.

Train loads of crude oil aren’t yet rolling through Metro Vancouver for export, but there’s growing speculation that could come, particularly if proposed new pipelines are rejected. (Small amounts of crude have come by truck or train to Chevron’s Burnaby refinery at times when it was unable to get enough supply from the over-subscribed Trans Mountain pipeline.)

But poisonous or explosive gases do roll on rail through heavily developed Metro neighbourhoods and those are the train cars that are of greatest concern to emergency responders if a train derails.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis said one risky substance is propane, which is explosive and heavier than air, so it doesn’t readily dissipate.

Other chemicals that move on rail in this region include chlorine, hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, which spilled from CN Rail cars into the Cheakamus River in 2005, killing half a million fish.

Rail disasters are a “low frequency, high risk” threat that emergency responders in the region prepare for, he said.

“We haven’t taken it lightly,” Garis said.

But he emphasized the rail industry’s safety record moving dangerous goods has steadily improved since a 1979 chlorine leak in Mississauga, Ontario forced the evacuation of 218,000 people.

That incident triggered major regulatory reforms, including beefed-up tanker cars for hazardous goods.

“The rail cars that carry commodities that pose risks are designed to roll over, they’re designed to crash into each other end-on-end, so even if they do derail, they’re designed to withstand the consequences of that,” Garis said.

“The track record in recent years is extremely positive.”

Garis also noted the volumes of such chemicals moving here are relatively small.

Unlike derailments in rugged slide-prone parts of B.C., Garis noted the Lower Mainland is mostly flat and trains move slowly so risks of an accident are reduced.

North Vancouver energy consultant John Hunter said Lac Megantic underscores the fact that pipelines are safer than rail transport of oil.

He said more should be done to protect area residents from a chemical or hydrocarbon spill from a train along CN line on the North Shore, in close proximity to residents.

Hunter suggests a siren to warn residents to take emergency action.

“I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll ever have one, but I think we should have a notification system in case something goes wrong.”

Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said the Quebec disaster is a “wake-up call” on rail safety and for the federal government to ensure there’s adequate regulation and enforcement.

But she noted dangerous chemicals like propane and chlorine may be a greater threat when carried in heavy trucks on the roads with other traffic.

“You have to look at the risks,” she said of hauling by rail. “It’s either that or put it on a truck.”

Jackson recently came back from a fact-finding trip to Norway on that country’s approach to moving oil.

While there are no plans yet in southern B.C. for an oil-on-rail export terminal, Jackson said she wants to be “well-versed” on that and related port issues.

“We are a major port here in Deltaport, and from eveything I can see, it is going to continue to grow.”

[View the story “Day 2 of rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic” on Storify]

Just Posted

Missing Abbotsford man Adam Hobbs was found deceased on Thursday evening (June 17).
Body of missing Abbotsford man Adam Hobbs found

Hobbs was reported missing Monday after leaving his job site in Langley

UFV athletes were honoured for their strength and perseverance during the pandemic. (UFV photo)
Fraser Valley athletes recognized in year without sports

UFV Cascades athletes honoured for strength shown during the pandemic

web
Mission students hold rally, say everyone welcome at school

Ecole Christine Morrison Elementary School hosted an Anti-Racism Day on June 15

Abbotsford council has given permission for Chilliwack to use the JAMES wastewater treatment plant for the disposal of trucked liquid waste until the end of September.
Chilliwack gets exemption to Abbotsford bylaw prohibiting liquid waste from other cities

Process in place until September while new facility under construction in Chilliwack

n
Quarry Questions: Supreme Court ruling spells concern for Mission bylaws

Judge ruled that provincial permits overrule municipal bylaws relating to mining activity

A small pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins pass by close to shore in Campbell River June 16, 2021. Still capture from video courtesy of Kimberly Hart
VIDEO: Dolphin sunset captured from Vancouver Island shore

Spectacular setting for view of travelling pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins

Police are asking for public assistance in locating Anthony Graham who has been charged with the murders of Kamloops brothers Carlo and Erick Fryer. (RCMP photo)
2 charged, suspect at large in killings of B.C. brothers linked to gang activity: RCMP

Kamloops brothers Erick and Carlo Fryer were found deceased in May on a remote Okanagan road

Albert Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney unveil an opening sign after speaking about the Open for Summer Plan and next steps in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta 1st province in Canada to lift all COVID-19 public health restrictions

70.2% of eligible citizens 12 and older in the province have received a dose of the vaccine

Fraser Health registered nurse Ramn Manan draws a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe at a walk-up vaccination clinic at Bear Creek Park, in Surrey, B.C., on Monday, May 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Honour our fathers’ with COVID-19 vaccine protection, B.C. urges

109 new cases Friday, 75 per cent of 12 and up immunized

(Paul Henderson/ Chilliwack Progress)
Trutch Avenue in Chilliwack to be renamed to remove racist taint

New name to have Indigenous significance as Chilliwack takes new step toward reconciliation

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a joint news conference following the EU-Canada Summit, in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday June 15, 2021. Trudeau says Canada is on track now to have 68 million doses delivered by the end of July, which is more than enough to fully vaccinate all 33.2 million Canadians over the age of 12. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine deliveries enough to fully vaccinate all eligible Canadians by end of July

Three in four eligible Canadians now have their first dose, nearly one in five fully vaccinated.

A search is underway for a 75-year-old fisherman who went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search continues for angler missing between Port Angeles and Victoria

Canadian, U.S. Coast Guard searching for 75-year-old man reported missing Thursday evening

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant grew in Canada this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s public health agency reports spike in confirmed cases of Delta variant

More than 2,000 cases of the variant confirmed across all 10 provinces and in one territory

Most Read