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Dec 04, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Risk assessments on dangerous goods travelling by rail won’t be released

Transport Canada is requiring railways to do risk assessments on hazardous shipments, but won’t hand over the details to residents living near rail lines.

OurWindsor.Ca

Transport Canada has ordered railway companies to complete risk assessments detailing dangers posed by trains carrying hazardous materials, but the documents will be kept secret from the public.

While residents and politicians have been clamouring for information on the risks associated with the rail lines that run through their communities, neither Transport Canada nor Canada’s largest railways will release the assessments.

“We don’t understand why Transport Canada feels they need to keep this from the public. This veil of secrecy is not helpful to us,” said Patricia Lai, a Toronto mother who co-founded a community group to advocate for better rail safety.

“With all this secrecy, how can we know the railway is looking out for our best interests? We feel (government is) protecting somebody, but it’s not us.”

Transport Canada, in an emailed response to questions, wrote that the federal regulator reviews the risk assessments, but the information still belongs to the companies. “They contain sensitive commercial information, and Transport Canada does not own it,” spokesperson Mélany Gauvin wrote, suggesting contacting rail companies for the information.

Secrecy also surrounds other information rail companies provide to officials. Information on the hazardous goods that travel on rail lines is shared with municipalities but its public release is forbidden. And CP and CN, the country’s largest rail carriers, refuse to share their emergency response plans with the public. In November, CP spokesperson Breanne Feigel told the Star the company’s emergency response plan is “not relevant and palatable to (someone) sitting at the dinner table.”

Risk assessment reports now join the list of secret documents.

Under an April 2014 emergency directive, rail companies must conduct a risk evaluation on every route that carries 10,000 or more tankers bearing dangerous goods per year, along with trains holding 20 or more carloads of dangerous goods. It also applies to any train carrying a carload or more of substances that are highly toxic when inhaled, such as chlorine and ammonia.

Railways must detail the “chance of injury, loss, or damage to persons, property or the environment,” according to Transport Canada.

The directive requiring risk assessments is one of a slew of regulations that has come in the wake of the July 2013 train disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que., that killed 47 people.

The assessments include evaluation of risk factors such as population density, emergency response capabilities and the amount and type of dangerous goods moved on the route. Railways must also identify and compare the safety of alternate routes, factoring in potential changes such as an increase in dangerous-goods transport or population growth. The assessments are supposed to check how well “risk-control measures” are working and flag ways to reduce risk further.

The majority of routes used by Canada’s two major carriers, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, meet the thresholds to require a risk assessment under the directive. In Toronto, the CP rail line runs through the heart of the city along Dupont St., while CN’s line runs across the northern GTA, roughly parallel to Highway 407.

Canada’s largest railroad, CN, is fully compliant with Transport Canada’s orders, having submitted its summary of risk assessments on Dec. 1, 2014, spokesperson Mark Hallman wrote in an email.

“Risk assessments are not required to be distributed beyond Transport Canada,” wrote Hallman. Nearly 10 per cent of CN’s cargo is composed of dangerous goods.

Similarly, CP Rail spokesperson Martin Cej said the company has met all of Transport Canada’s requirements.

“Given the level of detail required by the order, for safety, security and proprietary reasons, we do not disclose the risk assessments publicly,” said Cej.

Neither company would provide specifics on whether they have rerouted trains as a result of the assessments, though both stress that evaluating and mitigating risk is an ongoing part of standard operations.

Transport Canada says it will review the risk assessments this winter and will continue to do so on an “ongoing basis.”

Following the tragedy at Lac-Megantic, Transport Canada ordered rail companies to provide municipal emergency responders with historical data on the types and amounts of dangerous goods transported through their communities, to allow for better disaster planning. But, like risk assessments, that information is shrouded from public view under strict confidentiality agreements.

In the event of an incident, rail companies are legally responsible, but the onus to react rests with municipalities. Municipal police, fire departments and EMS would co-ordinate and staff any response such as an evacuation, treatment of the injured or firefighting. The rail company would provide backup as needed.

Rail transport of dangerous goods, particularly crude oil, has risen dramatically in recent years. In 2009, 144 carloads of oil were shipped by rail in Canada. By 2013, that figure was nearly 128,000.

Nichole Anderson, a member of a Rathnelly neighbourhood association who lives near the CP line in midtown Toronto, said politicians and policy-makers need to know the risks posed by railways in order to make good decisions, and residents have a right to be informed of dangers in their communities.

“We’ve lost confidence in the regulators,” said Anderson, whose group is pushing for dangerous goods to be rerouted around major urban centres, among other measures.

“People are not going to stand for this … They might own the line, but it’s our city.”

In the United States, confidentiality clauses surrounding dangerous goods were met with stiff resistance from some states that argued communities had a right to know about hazards and released the information anyway. The U.S. has federal rules that enshrine citizens’ rights to information about potential hazards from facilities such as chemical plants, though railways are exempt.

Canada lags behind many developed countries in its right-to-know legislation. The National Pollutant Release Inventory provides information on the release, disposal or transfer of pollutants, and the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System informs workers about health hazards associated with materials or chemicals in the workplace. But neither provides the overarching access to information that U.S. legislation does.

City Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) said government has miscalculated if it’s concerned that releasing information on the risks of transporting dangerous goods by rail will scare the public.

“The fear of the unknown is actually far more scary for families living on the rail line,” said Matlow. “Citizens have a right to know what hazards are going through their neighbourhoods. Then we can have an informed conversation.”

Toronto Star

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