By R. Bruce Striegler

Report recommendations cover rail, marine spill response and pipelines

In a report issued at the end of August, the Canadian Senate’s Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources recommended the government initiate a major arm’s-length review of the country’s railway regulatory framework, standards and industry practices to increase the safe transportation of dangerous goods by rail in Canada. The Committee began its review long before the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, on November 28, 2012, but the August 2013 report provides 13 recommendations, relating to rail safety, oil tankers and pipelines.

Senator Richard Neufeld, Chair of the committee said, “The goal of our study was to examine the current state of emergency and spill prevention, preparedness and response frameworks under federal authority and to make recommendations to improve public safety and the protection of the environment.” Senator Neufeld continued, saying that the Committee had been working on the safety issues for months, but that the Lac-Mégantic disaster with its loss of life, property and environmental damage intensified the need to address hydrocarbon transportation safety. “In the years ahead, hydrocarbon production will continue to grow and so will transport capacity. That’s why we believe Canadians need to know more about what the federal government has in place to protect citizens and the environment, and what more can be done to enhance current practices.”

The committee believes the Lac-Mégantic tragedy could have the same impact on the rail industry as the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill has had on marine oil transportation. That is, it resulted in significant changes in tanker design and a major overhaul of Canada’s marine spill preparedness and response programs. Furthermore, the report calls on Transport Canada to implement all the recommendations from the December 2011 report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development related to the transport of dangerous goods, something the Harper Conservatives have shown no interest in doing to date.

Additionally it recommends Transport Canada, in cooperation with its U.S regulatory counterpart find ways to accelerate the phase-out of the CTC-111A and DOT-111 tank cars. This particular type of tanker car has been under close observation from safety experts since 1991 due to its tendency to split open in derailments and other major accidents. And in what many see as key to holding violators responsible for an accident, the report calls on Transport Canada to apply minimum liability coverage thresholds to rail companies to ensure they have the financial capacity to cover damages caused by a major accident. The Senate report also recommends that Transport Canada work in partnership with railway companies to make existing safety assessments mandatory within the Agency’s audit program.

Marine safety, pipelines and transport of dangerous goods

When it comes to marine safety, the Committee recommends the Transportation Safety Board expand and modernize its database to provide detailed information on ship-sourced spills, including the type of ship and the volume and type of product released. As well, the report says that the current spill preparedness and response capacity of 10,000 tonnes within prescribed timeframes needs adjusting upwards to fit the assessed needs of each region as determined by Transport Canada.

In B.C., just released briefing papers prepared in June this year for the newly-elected B.C. Minister of Environment state: “Even a moderately-sized spill would overwhelm the province’s ability to respond and could result in a significant liability for government. The industry requirements, established by Transport Canada, are perceived as being insufficient in both scope and scale. For example, in both Washington State and Alaska industry requirements are far in excess of what is required in B.C.”

The B.C. briefing notes also are critical of federal budget cuts in 2012, which forced Environment Canada to close regional spill response centres in Vancouver and other cities, consolidating these activities in Quebec. In May, 2012, documents show officials in the B.C.’s Environmental Emergency Program in Victoria privately wrote that this relocation would hinder efforts to contain an oil spill on the West Coast. “As a result, Environment Canada will have little or no surge capacity in the event of a major spill to bring in responders from across the country. Trying to provide the current level of service from Montreal is not realistic. Current Environment Canada staff has found it challenging to respond to spills outside of their base in Vancouver, and a move to Montreal will certainly increase these challenges many-fold.”

Those warnings were written in response to existing oil traffic, without factoring in future pipelines and tankers. The notes continue, “Weather conditions and the remoteness of the (Northern Gateway) pipeline’s route in B.C. could cause cleanup delays, leading to broader water, land and wildlife contamination. Sensitive habitats, local economies including fisheries and tourism as well as First Nations along the route could be affected.”

The Senate report also concludes that it would be wise for the federal government to provide umbrella responder immunity protection to Canadian marine response organi­zations for all non-ship source spills including marine spills from pipelines, trains and trucks. Further, the Committee says that the Canadian Coast Guard’s mandated spill preparedness and response capabilities be certified by Transport Canada or periodically, by an arm’s-length agency. The report also says that, in certain areas and under specified circumstances, certified marine response organizations should be pre-approved to use dispersant, initiate controlled burning and take other prescribed counter-measures when it yields a net environmental benefit.

When it comes to pipelines, the Senate Committee report is a little less forthcoming, saying only that the National Energy Board should work in partnership with regulated companies and experts in pipeline safety culture to develop a program for mandatory audit of industry safety practices. The report adds that the federal government should facilitate efforts to establish a national access point for information on locations of buried infrastructure, as well as promote one-call centres and ‘call before you dig’ initiatives.

“Transportation systems operate within a highly regulated environment. There are extensive regulatory frameworks, management systems, standards and practices all serving to promote safety,” said Senator Grant Mitchell, Deputy Chair of the Committee. “We heard a lot of testimony which should give Canadians confidence, but the reality is that the transportation of hydrocarbons can never be completely without risk. It is my hope that at the very least, Lac-Mégantic can invoke an Exxon Valdez response, where we carefully and thoroughly examine what went wrong so that any improvements that need to be made, can be made quickly.”

Meanwhile in British Columbia, where issues surrounding transport of hazardous materials are a source of controversy daily, reports indicate that the B.C. Government is exploring the concept of a new provincially-regulated, but industry-led and funded “terrestrial spill response cooperative” and the word is that while the Province is pleased with whatever steps Ottawa may take to improve hazardous goods movement, B.C. is moving forward with its own review to define a world-class marine spill system.