Robyn Benson, PSAC

Off the rails

Gainford derail.jpg

Think of a tanker train as a mobile pipeline. After the Lac-Mégantic disaster, we’d all hoped for a breather. But trains carrying their lethal cargo as they roll through Canada’s little towns are, it seems, an ever-present threat. 100 citizens of Gainford, Alberta, remain evacuated from their homes while a propane cleanup continues.

There will be those who argue that these trainwrecks bolster the case for pipelines. But this isn’t really a matter of choosing the lesser evil. We’re really dealing with two variants of the same thing: highly polluting and dangerous substances, inadequate safety protection, and a regrettable tendency to close the stable door after the horse has bolted.

In his recent Throne Speech, Stephen Harper promised “measures to protect against spills and other risks to the environment and local communities.” How would this be done, exactly? By setting higher safety standards for pipeline operators, and “act[ing] on advice from the Expert Panel on Tanker Safety, to create a world-class tanker safety system in Canada.” And by adopting NDP proposals for a “polluter-pay” system, by which companies that pollute will pay for the clean-up, as well as requiring an increase in liability insurance.

Fine words. But there are practical problems with all of them.

First, in a period of radical deregulation and public service cutbacks, how will higher safety standards be enforced? Then, what advice will the government be getting, and precisely how does it plan to act on it? What happens in the meantime? Finally, shouldn’t prevention be the main target here, not cleaning up after massive spills?

Make no mistake, those spills will keep on coming. A recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives notes that 275,000 barrels of crude oil per day are now shipped by rail, while the budget of Transport Canada’s Dangerous Goods division has remained miniscule. “It has only 35 inspectors, the equivalent of just one inspector for every 4,000 tank carloads of crude oil transported in 2013. In 2009, when the oil-by-rail boom started, there was one inspector for every 14 tank carloads,” says the CCPA’s Bruce Campbell. As far as real inspection and enforcement goes, the CCPA notes that Transport Canada ignored repeated warnings from the Transportation Safety Board about unsafe tanker cars and other serious hazards until the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.

How, practically speaking, is any of that about to change? Where are the resources to make change happen?

Turning to pipelines themselves, which Harper has been pushing, even to the point of telling the United States that he won’t take no for an answer, once again massive spills in Alberta demonstrate that they are far from safe. Indeed, while spill rates may be less than that of railways, those spills, when they do occur, leak three times as much oil. Here’s a sobering record of pipeline ruptures in the US since 1986.

The real problem with the pollution caused by these accidents is that the technology simply doesn’t exist to clean it up. Ask folks living near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Three years later, Enbridge is still trying to clear up the mess. The people living around Mayflower, Arkansas report that, contrary to what Exxon claims, their water and air remain polluted, and the pollution extends geographically much farther than the oil company admits. The pollution around Lac-Mégantic is worse than originally thought. How will they restore all that contaminated soil, water and air?

Polluter pay? Sure. Liability insurance? Why not? But you can’t just rinse the environment in the sink.

The answer isn’t to oppose fossil fuels, or rail transportation, or pipelines. It’s to pour our efforts into prevention instead of cure. It’s to improve the safety technology, and to build and maintain a strong, properly-resourced federal regulatory system that can guarantee the health and safety of Canadians. It’s not to mouth empty words in a Throne Speech while the government lets the disasters continue as the inevitable price of business as usual.

[Photo credit: Dan Riedlhuber, Reuters]

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on October 25, 2013 8:22 AM.

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