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

Poisonous, explosive gases roll on trains through densely populated Lower Mainland neighbourhoods

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis.

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.”

[View the story “Day 2 of rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic” on Storify]

Just Posted

Relationships, continuity top health-care concerns for Agassiz residents

Feedback during Fraser Health events showed access to health care needs to improve

Development on the horizon for Harrison Hot Springs Marina

The property has been the subject of a number development proposals over the years

Chilliwack Players Guild brings first ever radio play to stage

An Affair of Honour is based on a true story, written by the father of a Chilliwack man

‘Big hearts and even bigger feet’: Comedian sends Harrison humour to the silver screen

Jonny Harris will see the town highlighted on his small-town comedy series ‘Still Standing’

More staff being hired at Fraser Valley seniors homes

Number of care hours for residents lags behind provincial targets

VIDEO: Car flies across median, flips over edge of Brunette overpass

Dash cam footage shows a vehicle speeding across a Lower Mainland overpass

Lower Mainland teacher resigned after ‘inappropriate discussions’ with elementary students

Tracy Joseph Fairley resigned from Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows district April 23, 2018

Surrey needs 350 more cops, activist tells council

‘Right now we are 350 police behind what our population requires,’ politicians are told

Indigenous energy summit includes session on pipeline ownership options

Steven Saddleback of the Indian Resource Council says a session will feature presentations on financing models

Japanese grand champion Kisenosato retires from sumo

The 32-year-old Kisenosato was the first Japanese-born wrestler in 19 years to gain promotion to sumo’s highest rank

UPDATE: Accused B.C. high school killer found fit to stand trial

Gabriel Klein is accused in the 2016 stabbing death of Letisha Reimer at Abbotsford Senior Secondary

Right-wing, neo-Nazi, white supremacist groups an increasing concern: Goodale

Ten people died in April 2018 when Alek Minassian allegedly drove a rental van down the busy stretch in Toronto

Where mattresses go to die

Mattress Recycling opens the largest of its kind mattress-recycling facility in Hope

Canadian stock exchanges to conduct lottery for ‘POT’ ticker amid high demand

The symbol became available after fertilizer Potash Corp. officially merged with Agrium Inc. in early 2018

Most Read