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

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis. - File
Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis.
— image credit: File

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."

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