April 26th, 2014
Trains trundling through the heart of Toronto are carrying millions of litres of crude oil along with radioactive material, explosives and some of the most toxic chemicals on earth.
The railroad industry and the federal government have long kept secret what dangerous goods are transported through municipalities, citing fears for security should the public know what is riding the rails past their homes.
But it’s easy to find out.
The Star monitored Canadian Pacific’s rail line where it crosses Bartlett Ave. on its route that runs along Dupont St. from the Junction neighbourhood before it swings northward just west of the Don Valley.
Over the course of two 12-hour stretches — one from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., the other from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. — the Star documented more than 130 cars of crude oil, tankers carrying methyl bromide and ethyl trichlorosilane — highly poisonous chemicals rated among the world’s most dangerous — as well as radioactive material, methanol, diesel, sulfuric acid and other hazardous goods.
Containers carrying dangerous goods are marked with four-digit numbers, assigned by the United Nations Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods, identifying the substance inside.
“This security excuse is really a hoax,” said Fred Millar, a U.S. consultant on chemical safety and rail transport. “These are giant tank cars with placards on the sides that tell you what’s in them.”
As part of a slew of regulatory changes in the wake of the Lac-Megantic train explosion last July that left 47 people dead, Transport Canada issued an order requiring railroads to provide emergency responders with data on dangerous goods shipped through municipalities during the previous year. Canada’s two largest rail carriers, CP and CN, said they already provided this information upon request.
Municipal officials who receive the information, meant to assist in emergency planning, are sworn to secrecy.
“It’s balancing safety and security with the need to know and the ability to respond,” Transport Minister Lisa Raitt told reporters in Toronto last month.
Railroad companies echo those security concerns.
CN spokesperson Jim Feeny told the Star in March the information in the hands of an “ordinary citizen” wasn’t a concern, “but there may be interests that could use this information contrary to the public good.”
City Councillor Josh Matlow, (Ward 22, St. Paul’s), whose ward is crossed by the CP rail line, said the public has a right to know the volume and frequency of hazardous materials passing through their communities. Toronto council passed a motion, introduced by Matlow, earlier this month requesting that the federal government order railroad companies to divulge the data publicly.
“I think it’s reasonable to expect that anyone who was a true security concern would spend even more time researching this matter than a Toronto Star reporter,” said Matlow. “If it really was a matter of security, then it would be something that would be far more difficult to even get a snapshot of.”
CP Rail spokesperson Ed Greenberg said the company’s policy on “commodity flow information and specifics pertaining to routing” are in accordance with a process developed by the rail industry that involved discussions with security experts.
“CP remains committed to the integrity of security-sensitive information,” said Greenberg.
The federal system “requires that we only release the information to first-response agencies, as it is security-sensitive information,” Greenberg said.
When asked about the safety of moving dangerous materials through densely populated areas such as the GTA, Greenberg said safety is the highest priority. He listed the host of inspections of tracks, equipment and infrastructure that regularly take place.
A spokesperson for Transport Canada, which regulates railroads and dangerous-goods transport, said the federal department would respond to questions from the Star by deadline on Friday, but it failed to do so.
Millar, the rail consultant, argues dangerous substances such as chlorine, methyl bromide and ethyl trichlorosilane have no place running on rails through the most densely populated region of Canada.
The public should, at least, know what goods are in its midst and the worst-case scenarios should something go wrong, said Millar. For instance, a derailment involving a single car carrying chlorine in Mississauga forced the evacuation of 200,000 people in 1979.
“The community needs to be informed about the risk, otherwise how are you going to get an appropriate level of concern?” said Millar, noting the train that exploded in Lac-Megantic had earlier travelled down the CP line through Toronto.
“That train could have blown up (in Toronto).”
In the U.S., railroads must use the “safest and most secure” route to transport the most dangerous substances, though there is little transparency as to what routes are chosen or why.
Canada has no such rules.
But in the wake of Lac-Megantic, calls are growing louder for dangerous goods, including crude oil, to be kept out of major population centres.
Councillor Cesar Palacio said the rail disaster in Lac-Megantic showed how vulnerable communities are, as he introduced a motion, later passed, calling on Transport Canada to consider routing dangerous goods around Toronto, among other demands.
“It is not a secret that during the last few years there has been a tremendous surge in rail traffic carrying hazardous materials throughout Toronto and throughout the country with no oversight or public disclosure, which is totally unacceptable and heightens residents’ sense of insecurity,” said Palacio.
CP spokesperson Greenberg said rerouting is a complex issue and “is not something under consideration.”
Dangerous goods in our midst
The Star documented dangerous goods travelling by rail through Toronto along the Canadian Pacific Rail line that runs parallel to Dupont St. These are some of the substances that passed during two 12-hour periods.
Methyl bromide: An extremely toxic gas that is corrosive and can cause death if inhaled. It’s identified by the United Nations Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods as one of the most dangerous substances to be transported. Methyl bromide is used in pesticides.
Methanol: A highly flammable substance that can explode, methanol causes skin and eye irritation and can be fatal if inhaled or ingested. Methanol is widely used, in waste water treatment, fuel and biodiesel, and manufacturing materials such as plastic, paint and carpet.
Sulfuric acid: A highly toxic, corrosive substance that can be fatal if inhaled. Sulfuric acid reacts violently with many other materials, including water. It’s used as a component in manufacturing phosphate fertilizers, metals such as copper and zinc, tin food cans and paint. About 200 million tonnes are produced annually, worldwide.
Ethyl trichlorosilane: A flammable substance that produces poisonous gases if on fire. It’s corrosive and reacts to water, creating toxic hydrogen chloride gas. Inhalation can be fatal. It’s identified by the United Nations Committee of Experts on the Transport of Dangerous Goods as one of the most dangerous substances to be transported. Ethyl trichlorosilane is used to manufacture silicon products.
Crude oil: Crude oil is flammable and may contain chemicals such as benzene and hydrogen sulphide. Crude oil extracted from the Bakken formation in North Dakota — the oil that ignited in Lac-Megantic, Que., in July 2013 killing 47 people — has proven to also be far more explosive than traditional product. Hydrogen sulfide, also a common component of Bakken crude, can cause illness and death. Benzene is a carcinogen.
Resin solution: A highly flammable substance that contains vapours that can form explosive mixtures when exposed to air. Exposure irritates skin, eyes and respiratory systems. Fires may produce toxic or corrosive gases that can cause dizziness or suffocation.
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