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Lac-Megantic one year later: Few real changes in safety rules after Canada’s worst rail disaster of the past century

July 3, 2014

This coming weekend marks the first anniversary of the Lac-Megantic rail disaster. In the early hours of July 6th, 2013, an unattended train of 73 car-loads of crude oil from the Bakken shale formation ran away and then derailed, exploded and burned in the heart of the small Quebec town. Forty-Seven residents died, making it the deadliest rail accident in Canada in the past century.

The anniversary provides an opportunity to reflect on what has changed in the wake of the disaster, and perhaps most importantly, what has not.

Whatever else might be said about the events of last July, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, and his transport minister Lisa Raitt, have put on a clinic in political management and blame avoidance almost from the moment the tragedy occurred. Despite the federal Department of Transport’s role as Canada’s primary railway safety regulator, the federal government has never acknowledged any measure of failure or responsibility for the tragedy.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster regulatory changes were adopted prohibiting the one-man operation of trains carrying dangerous goods. The rules regarding the parking of trains carrying hazardous cargos were strengthened at the same time. Following intensive media investigations and pressure, the hazard classification of crude oil from the Bakken shale formation, of the type involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster was belatedly upgraded. In practice, however, this has had little immediate impact on the transportation of oil by rail.

More remarkable is what hasn’t happened in the wake of the disaster. Despite the precedents of many much less serious disasters, at least in terms of the loss of life, there has been no proper public inquiry into the tragedy. The work of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) and investigative efforts by the media have revealed aspects of the factors contributing to the disaster, but none has provided complete picture of the failures involved. A study on study of rail safety has been initiated by the Conservative dominated House of Commons Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Transport, but has yet to be completed.

The self-regulatory “safety management system” adopted by Transport Canada for rail safety - a system that let the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway determine for itself the safety of one-person operations of trains carrying dangerous goods, remains firmly in place.  The older DOT-111 tank cars about which there have been long-standing safety concerns, and whose use likely contributed to the scale of the explosions and fire in Lac-Megantic, continue to dominate the North American tank car fleet being used to transport the dramatically increased volumes of oil around the continent.

The Lac-Megantic disaster, and similar near-miss accidents involving the movement of oil by rail in Canada and the US prompted a realization by municipalities of the extent of the risks associated with these activities. Municipal governments in Canada responded by requesting improved access to information regarding rail shipments of dangerous goods through their communities. These demands were recently decisively rejected by federal transport minister Raitt.

The end result of these measures has been an appearance of action, while remarkably little has actually changed regarding the movement of dangerous goods by rail, or to interfere with the dramatic growth in the movement of crude oil by rail in North America over the past six years. In 2008, only 500 carloads of oil moved by rail in Canada. It is estimated that 140,000 carloads were transported last year.

In addition to issues of the immediate and longer-term failures of regulatory oversight by the federal government leading up to the disaster, the tragedy begs some larger questions about the pace of development of ‘unconventional’ fossil fuels, like Bakken crude. The enormous shift to moving crude oil by rail that preceded the Lac-Megantic disaster and the other ‘near-misses’ in Canada and the US have highlighted the extent to which unconventional oil development has completely outstripped the capacity of the available transportation infrastructure to move the resulting products and of regulators on both sides of the border to ensure public safety.

These considerations provide another explanation for our fossil-fuel export obsessed federal government’s feeble regulatory responses to the disaster and its unwillingness to engage in a deeper conversation about the causes of the tragedy. The residents of Lac-Megantic and the other communities whose safety has been put at risk across North America by the consequences of the ‘unconventional’ oil boom deserve much better.