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After Second Train Derailment, Ontario Town Worried It Could Be the Next Lac-Mégantic

The rash of problems in northern Ontario highlights the growing hazard in Canada and across the US of shipping crude by rail, according to a rail safety expert.

by Colin Graf
Mar 9 2015, 2:18pm

Derailed train cars at Gogama. Photo via Glenn Thibeault, Twitter

You can forgive the people of Gogama, Ontario (pop. 300-400) if they feel they've had a little too much excitement this winter. Multiple rail cars containing Alberta crude oil are burning just outside of their town 200 km north of Sudbury, and the same thing happened a little further out of town just last month. Top of mind right now in Gogama is Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, another small Canadian town where 47 people died in July 2013 when oil-laden tank cars crashed, exploded, and burned much of the town's centre. The CN Rail line runs right through the centre of Gogama, just like it does in Lac-Mégantic.

At approximately 2:45 AM on Saturday, the crew on an eastbound CN freight train reported that cars had derailed. CN said five cars had fallen in a local river, but Natalie Gaudette, a local communications officer, told VICE on Sunday that only two were in the river. Booms had been deployed in the river to catch leaking oil. According to Gaudette, who spoke with VICE by phone, around 50 firefighters were spraying the fire with foam and trying to cool cars that had not ignited. A total of 37 tank cars derailed and all, except those in the river, were piled in a 100-metre space, she said. The water supply for the town and the nearby Mattagami First Nation has not been affected, she said, except for a few cottagers who are not connected to the municipal water system. A bridge over the waterway was damaged, according to an email from CN spokesperson Emily Hamer. Both women reported that air monitoring had shown no contaminants.

The CN train that derailed on February 14 near Gogama, set fire to material released from 21 tank cars. The fire was extinguished only after six days.

People in Gogama are "concerned," and are comparing their town to Lac-Mégantic, says Gerry Talbot, a 40-year resident of Gogama. With two local incidents in a month, and a recent third Ontario derailment, this one involving liquid propane near the northern community of Nipigon, residents are asking what the problems might be.

"Is it lack of inspections? Are the trains too long or too heavy, and are they damaging the wheels or the track as a result?" says Talbot.

CN Rail, in a series of tweets, said the company was investigating the accident and told residents not to worry, everything would be fine.

"CN is offering every assistance to [Transportation Safety Board] on-scene investigators. It is essential to have all the facts related to this incident known," the company said Sunday. "Residents likely to see some smoke plumes of [assorted] shades of black/gray/white; this is normal [and] poses no threat to the public or environment."

Photo via Ontario Provincial Police

The rash of problems in northern Ontario highlights the growing hazard in Canada and across the US of shipping crude by rail, says American rail safety expert Fred Millar, who spoke with VICE from Washington, DC. People should be worried that "these Pepsi cans on wheels are blowing up all over the continent quite regularly," and are a "money-making windfall" for the rail industry, as the oil industry in the Alberta tar sands, and in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota struggle to find ways to ship their product out as fast as they can extract it, says Millar.

Building pipelines is difficult, slow, and expensive, so oil companies are turning more and more to rail.

"This industry hardly existed five years ago," Millar says.

Crude oil rail shipments in Canada have increased massively in recent years, from only 500 cars in 2009 to 160,000 in 2013, according to the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), and data supplied by the Railway Association of Canada. Regulators in both Canada and the US just can't keep up with this kind of growth, says Millar. One of the most dangerous trends is having whole trains of flammable liquids, instead of having them scattered among other materials as used to be the practice, he explained. The Lac-Mégantic train and both Gogama trains were such "single-unit" trains.

This huge increase in transporting oil by rail has been named by the TSB as a " key risk" to Canada's transportation system.

The TSB is calling on the federal government to implement tough standards for new rail cars, and says the standards the politicians are considering since Lac-Mégantic are still not good enough. The new standard makes only "marginal improvements" to the older train cars, says Millar. Changes include "slightly stronger" steel, and an insulating blanket that can help slow the spread of fire from one car to the next, he says.

Photo via Ontario Provincial Police

While many rail cars in the Lac-Mégantic disaster were an older form of what are known as the DOT-111s, the Safety Board says all the cars in the Valentine's Day Gogama derailment were built in recent years to the new standards, and performed no better than the older ones at Lac-Mégantic.

The cars in this weekend's Gogama incident were also built to the new standard, according to CN Rail.

It's been 20 years or more since regulators in both Canada and the US first tried to turn governments' attention to problems with the DOT-111s. Problems were first noted in Canada in the 1990s, says the TSB's Rob Johnston. "They've known these aren't safe for 21 years, and there's been no action from either the FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] in the US or Transport Canada," says Millar. There are still around 75,000 of the older DOT-111s on the rails transporting dangerous cargoes across the continent, he says.

As well as trying to improve standards for new cars, the TSB has also called on the Conservative government to improve the safety of the older DOT-111s still on the rails, to avoid punctures in case of accidents.

"The TSB has been calling for tougher standards for Class 111 tank cars for several years," said Jean L. Laporte, TSB's Chief Operating Officer on Feb. 23, in an update on the investigation into the first Gogama accident. "Here is yet another example of tank cars being breached, and we once again urge Transport Canada to expedite the introduction of enhanced protection standards to reduce the risk of product loss when these cars are involved in accidents."

The older DOT-111s were made to carry materials like corn syrup, not flammable materials, says Helen Vassilakos of the Toronto-based Community group Safe Rail Communities. She and her neighbour founded the group in 2014 after Lac-Mégantic and when they noticed an "alarming increase" in the number of long trains of DOT-111s chugging through her Dundas-Runnymede neighbourhood in west Toronto.

In spite of repeated efforts to get details on changes proposed by Conservative Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, Vassilakos says there is "no way" to find out if the government is following through on announced improvements to rail safety. They have even gone to the federal auditor-general to try and get full information, she says.

Following the Lac-Mégantic crash, Raitt's department issued an emergency directive for securing unattended trains. Trains with dangerous cargo were required from that point on to have at least a two-person crew. The train that crashed in July 2013 had a one-person crew.

In April 2014, the government responded to initial recommendations from the TSB by removing the least crash-resistant DOT-111 tanker cars from circulation. At the time, it also required the industry to do more route planning and make sure emergency response plans are in place for the transportation of high-risk hydrocarbons like petroleum products.

A spokesperson with Transport Canada says officials were unavailable to comment on detailed issues regarding the DOT-111 cars during the weekend.

Canada's railways have called for dangerous goods tank cars to be built to a higher standard, according to documents from the Railway Association of Canada. They believe all non-pressurized dangerous goods tank cars should be built or retrofitted to meet enhanced design requirements, or be phased out, the group states on its website.

Rail companies have also trained more than 17,000 railway employees, industrial plant personnel and firefighters on dangerous goods handling and emergency response in recent years, according to the RAC.

Canadian or American, rail firms know further accidents are inevitable, and could happen in a major city, says Fred Millar. They've even tried to put a cost on such a disaster in the US—a cost they estimate could result in damages in the billions, he says.

Meanwhile, people in Gogama are just hoping the next accident won't be any closer to home.

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