PIAC article on state of play regarding Lac-Mégantic’s quest for justice and for safety of oil transported by rail.

Bruce Campbell, PIAC* Board member

It has been more than three years since the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, which killed 47 people; left 27 children orphaned; spilled six million litres of crude oil, poisoning the land and waterways; destroyed the town centre; and traumatized a community – trauma that continues to afflict its residents. Combining lives lost, environmental damage and physical destruction the July 6, 2013 Lac–Mégantic rail disaster is – outside of wartime – without precedent in modern Canadian history.

Have the lessons from this disaster been learned? Has it led to fundamental improvements in the rail safety system? A number of policy changes have been put in place since the tragedy including: the rule allowing single operator freight trains has been removed; rules regarding train securement have been made more precise; crude oil has been designated a dangerous good requiring an emergency response plan; a stronger crash resistant tank car has been introduced and will be phased in over 10 years. Nevertheless, massive oil trains continue to run on increasingly overstressed and under-maintained tracks, through urban areas, sometimes at excessive speeds. Main track derailments of trains carrying dangerous goods have increased.

The CPC-1232 tank cars (a slightly improved version of the old legacy DOT-111s), which currently carry virtually all crude oil, continue to puncture and their contents explode – most recently in May, 2016 in Mosier, Oregon, where a disaster was narrowly averted. These unsafe cars will be allowed to carry their dangerous cargo until 2025, when their stronger replacements (DOT-117) are fully in place.

Rail oversight measures essential to a safe regulatory system – notably frequent on-site inspections – remain inadequate. Without them, companies are still “regulating themselves”, compromising safety when it conflicts with costs. An impediment to a robust rail safety system is the “cozy” relationship between Transport Canada and the powerful rail industry. Far too often, the industry is able to shape regulations to its own benefit while compromising the public interest. The industry can block or delay new regulations, and remove or dilute existing regulations that adversely affect its costs.

The 2016 budget allocated $48 million per year for three years to “strengthen oversight and enforcement, and to enhance prevention and response capabilities, related to rail safety…”; but results so far are far from what is needed.

Here are a few measures that would substantially improve safety of rail transport of crude oil:

  • Combine Safety Management Systems (SMS) with robust on-site inspections
  • Substantially increase the Transport Canada’s rail regulatory resources and independence, reducing the potential of regulatory capture by industry.
  • Accelerate the timetable for phase-out of CPC-1232 tank cars.
  • Remove volatile components from oil (including bitumen) before loading
  • Address worker fatigue problems
  • Address speed and alternative route problems
  • Enhance the ability of TSB to enforce recommendations

The people of Mégantic paid a terrible price for failures of a dysfunctional regulatory system. The government must admit its responsibility and commit now to building forthwith a rail bypass around the town, which they are demanding. Fundamental reforms are needed to persuade skeptical public that that lessons of Lac-Mégantic have been learned.

*Public Interest Advocacy Centre