A train passes a marshy section of the Eagle River between Revelstoke and Sicamous last week.

Is Revelstoke prepared for a major train disaster?

First in a series exploring human and environmental safety concerns of rail transport of petrochemicals through Revelstoke

Editor’s note: Reporter Alex Cooper and myself, editor Aaron Orlando, have been developing a co-authored series focusing on increases in oil shipments by rail in Canada. We are exploring the human and environmental safety of the practice, and investigating government and industry procedures designed to prevent and deal with leaks, derailments, fires, collisions and other rail disasters. Of course, we’re focusing on the Revelstoke area, which features some of the most challenging sections of the CPR line.

Since we started exploring the subject, there have been several serious and disconcerting incidents. The CPR bridge across the Columbia River caught on fire on May 4. On June 27, rail cars filled with petroleum products were stranded on a compromised bridge over the Bow River in Calgary, requiring an elaborate rescue. Most tragically, on July 6, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing at least five, with about 40 unaccounted for at our press time.

Planned oil pipelines through B.C., such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, have been central to provincial and national political discussions over the past two years. But what about the oil coming through by rail? How much travels through Revelstoke? How much more will come in the future? What are the human and environmental safety concerns? Are we willing and ready to meet them? Are we prepared?

We hope our series will open a discussion and shed light on the subject. We hope it can serve as a platform for a broader discussion of the issues. The series will be intermittent over the remainder of the summer.

How much oil travels through Revelstoke by rail?

How much oil and petroleum products travels through Revelstoke and the region?

According to Transport Canada, about 1,200 carloads of crude oil and petroleum products were shipped to B.C. in 2012, counting only cars listed as with B.C. as their destination.

That relatively small number marks a dramatic increase over the past few years, as oil producers have sought ways to move increasing supply to refineries and other destinations. Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific both report multifold increases in oil transport in recent years, and project rapid expansion in the near future.

A Transport Canada spokesperson told the Times Review that pipelines continue to be the main mode of transportation for the vast majority of oil in North America, but with pipeline networks nearing capacity, transportation by rail continues to increase.

Both Transport Canada and a spokesperson for the B.C. government said they don’t have estimates for future volumes of oil shipments through or into B.C.

The majority of the oil-by-rail activity appears to be east of the Rockies, as producers in places like Alberta’s oil sands and the Bakken deposit in the North Dakota region seek to ship crude to refineries in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico or on the American and Canadian eastern seaboard.

Transport Canada told the Times Review that increases in oil shipments to B.C. won’t trigger further regulatory reviews; oil and gas shipments, like other dangerous substances moved by rail, are and will continue to be regulated under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act. But there is no foreseeable process to deal with ramped up oil shipments by rail.

“Dangerous goods must be properly classified and transported in the proper means of containment manufactured to a Transport Canada-approved standard,” wrote a Transport Canada spokesperson. “Additional requirements include: proper documentation, safety marks, reporting and training. For certain dangerous goods, emergency response assistance plans are also required.”

The B.C. government also said there isn’t any threshold volume of oil-by-rail that would trigger a review of the status quo.

In response to our questions, however, the B.C. Ministry of Environment’s messaging is clear; the so-called “five conditions” outlined by Premier Christy Clark in 2012 for pipeline expansion in B.C. will have overlap for rail travel.

Transportation Minister Mary Polak reacted to the Lac-Megantic disaster early this week. “Whenever we see an event like this, our main concern is to learn from it and do everything we can to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again,” Polak said. “So we will be watching the federal investigation very closely.”

Polak said there is no simple answer to the question of whether pipelines are safer than rail for transporting oil.

“There is differing opinion on either side, and much depends on what kind of topography you’re dealing with in a particular location,” she said. In statements to the media on July 8, Polak referred to efforts to develop a “world class” land-based spill protection and response.

 

The B.C. Ministry of Environment also referred to this ongoing work in past weeks.  “While B.C. is regarded by other jurisdictions as a leader in spill response within Canada, the recent increase in the transportation of hazardous materials throughout the province means it’s time to make changes to ensure B.C. will have a world-class spill prevention and response program for many years to come,” wrote a B.C. environment ministry spokesperson in response to our questions. “This is why our government is taking strong and decisive action to develop a world-class land-based spill response and preparedness plan, in partnership with industry, which will put B.C. at the forefront of environmental protection.”

In addition to the feel-good phraseology, the environment ministry did detail specifics on their current spill response system (16 full-time staff, $2.4 million annually in dedicated funding). They pointed to the Ministry of Environment’s new Land Based Spill Preparedness and Response paper. The ‘intentions’ document was released in November of 2012. About 200 participants, including First Nations, industry, government and other stakeholders met in the spring of this year for a symposium to explore the land-based spill response plan.

The environment ministry is compiling recommendations and will report again near the end of 2013, before moving ahead with further planning.

An oil spill into one of the regional rivers like the Columbia, Illecillewaet or Eagle rivers adjacent to the CPR line, is of particular concern.

Also an offshoot of the new land-based response, new ‘Geographic Response Plans’ are a proposed as part of the revision of existing response systems.

“[Aquatic] spills garner greater scrutiny by provincial Environmental Emergency Response Officers to ensure the appropriate response occurs,” a ministry spokesperson said. “Geographic Response Plans provide an increased level of preparedness and planning for high risk water bodies with the goal of improving response outcomes.”

So far, the B.C. Ministry of Environment has been developing a geographic response plan in the region near the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, and for the CN Rail corridor there, including for the Skeena River and the Highway 16 corridor between Burns Lake and Prince Rupert. The process involves mapping and testing river access points, spill control points and tactics for spills.

Once in place in Northern B.C., the process will serve as a template for further geographic response plans in B.C., including this region. A Ministry of Environment spokesperson said the strategy is being imported from the U.S., where the geographic response plans have proved effective.

Part I of an ongoing series exploring the safety of rail transport in the Revelstoke region.

– with notes on a July 9 media conference by Transportation Minister Mary Polak from Black Press reporter Tom Fletcher

 

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