March 5th, 2014
More and more oil, some of it highly flammable crude from North Dakota’s Bakken region, is trundling on rail lines through the heart of Toronto in aged tank cars widely recognized as substandard.
Oil shipments by rail have increased dramatically in Canada over the past five years, from 500 carloads in 2009 to an estimated 140,000 in 2013, as production booms in western Canada and North Dakota, where oil extracted from its Bakken region is proving more explosive than traditional crude.
Also rising in number are the tank cars using the Canadian Pacific rail line that runs through Toronto from the Junction neighbourhood along Dupont St. before curving northward just west of the Don Valley.
“Crude oil has been transported over the past couple years right through the heart of one of the most densely populated areas in the entire country, without any consultation, any public notices,” said Councillor Josh Matlow, who represents Ward 22, St. Paul’s, which brushes up against the north side of the tracks. “It just kind of happened.”
The railroad industry doesn’t publicly release information on dangerous goods being transported by rail, citing security concerns, though a Transport Canada order issued in November 2013 requires companies to provide municipal officials with historical data to allow for better emergency planning.
Matlow said he began hearing more concerns about the safety of crude oil shipments in the wake of the devastating derailment and crude oil explosion in Lac-Megantic, Que., in July 2013 that left 47 people dead. That train’s ill-fated journey took it through Toronto and Montreal en route to tragedy in Quebec.
The councillor met with CP several weeks ago, looking for answers as to what’s being moved, the risks involved, and what alternative routes might exist. But he likened it to a “PR exercise.” The company was unwilling to even discuss rerouting dangerous goods, he said.
“Just to say, ‘That’s not something we can look at,’ that’s not good enough,” said Matlow. “We need to understand what our options are here … Just telling us that everything’s fine isn’t good enough.”
Matlow is organizing a “liaison group” of community members and local politicians that he hopes will meet with CP.
Railway spokesperson Ed Greenberg said the company is prepared to discuss operations with the community and local officials. Tracks and trains are regularly inspected; CP meets or exceeds all regulations, he said.
“Safety is of the highest priority for our railway,” said Greenberg. But rerouting is not on the books for now.
“Rerouting rail traffic is a complex issue that requires careful discussion with communities, regulators, shippers and other stakeholders,” he said.
Nichole Anderson crosses the rail line nearly every day, driving her kids from their South Hill home to school near Davenport Rd. and Avenue Rd. She began to do research after noticing more and more oil tank cars, “rows and rows” of them.
“The increase is pretty dramatic, and it’s happening right here, in dense populations,” said Anderson. “People don’t realize the safety concerns that are there.”
Anderson wants trains carrying crude oil to be rerouted around the city. In the meantime, the old tank cars currently used to transport crude oil should be replaced, she said. For 20 years, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board has warned about the vulnerability of DOT-111 cars — the model that exploded in Lac-Megantic — to damage and punctures.
Both Canada’s major rail carriers, CP and Canadian National, have agreed the older cars need to be phased out. But the shippers that provide the containers are less keen.
Fred Millar, a U.S.-based consultant on rail transport, said politicians and the public need to “force” industry and regulators to replace DOT-111s and route dangerous goods away from major urban centres.
“We’re talking here about a giant, transcontinental flow of crude oil, a brand new, born-yesterday industry,” said Millar. “We don’t have the infrastructure for this. It’s clear we don’t have it, they’re blowing up and falling off rail lines all over the country … and the rail cars are Pepsi cans on wheels.”
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