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

KPU hosts first welding summer camp in Surrey for high school students

Weeklong course funded by LNG Canada and the Canadian Welding Bureau

Man injured in early-morning Surrey shooting

Police say it was targeted and it ‘may be connected to drug trafficking’

‘Do the right thing,’ implores sister of South Surrey stabbing victim

IHIT confirms male arrested in connection with Paul Prestbakmo’s death no longer in custody

Groovy South Surrey wedding a throwback to Woodstock ‘69

Couple hosts themed wedding 50 years after legendary festival

Bodies of two missing Surrey men found near Ashcroft: RCMP

Ryan Provencher and Richard Scurr have been missing since July 17

VIDEO: Could we BE any more excited? ‘Friends’ fans go crazy for merch

Movie theatres will show select episodes to mark the NBC series’ 25th anniversary

VIDEO: Organization’s stolen wheelchair van recovered on backroad near Hope

Wheelchair accessible van is only transportation for some people in Hope area

Officials say 50 Oppenheimer Park residents have agreed to leave, as deadline looms

Residents have been told they must be gone by 6 p.m. on Aug. 21

Five hedgehogs quickly adopted after being left at BC SPCA

Lucky new owners picked up their pets from Maple Ridge branch on Aug. 20

B.C. cricket players get interrupted by racist remark

Community has had protocols in place for years to respond to prejudice

Nearly 50% of Canadians experience ‘post-vacation blues’: poll

48 per cent of travellers are already stressed about ‘normal life’ while still on their trip

More women may need breast cancer gene test, U.S. guidelines say

Recommendations aimed at women who’ve been treated for BRCA-related cancers and are now cancer-free

B.C. manhunt suspects left cellphone video before they died: family

Family member says Kam McLeod, Bryer Schmegelsky recorded final wishes

Most Read