Derailments raise questions about the surge in oil trains

Repost from The Star, Toronto, Ontario

Derailments raise questions about the surge in oil trains

By Gillian Steward, Mon., March 11, 2019
A train derailment is shown near Field, B.C., on Feb. 4. A Canadian Pacific freight train fell more than 60 metres from a bridge near the Alberta-British Columbia boundary in a derailment that killed three crew members. The westbound freight jumped the tracks at about 1 a.m. near Field, B.C.
A train derailment is shown near Field, B.C., on Feb. 4. A Canadian Pacific freight train fell more than 60 metres from a bridge near the Alberta-British Columbia boundary in a derailment that killed three crew members. The westbound freight jumped the tracks at about 1 a.m. near Field, B.C. (JEFF MCINTOSH / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Now that so much oil is being shipped by rail from Alberta to points south and west, the sight of a crumpled freight train on the banks of the Kicking Horse River high in the Rocky Mountains has taken on a new twist.

Normally most of that oil would be shipped by pipeline but with the Trans Mountain project and other pipeline expansions stalled or abandoned, the oil industry has taken to shipping the stuff to refineries and ports by train.

A coalition of Indigenous and environmental groups along with the B.C. government successfully stalled the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that would carry diluted bitumen from Alberta through B.C. But is this what they wanted? Trains loaded with oil navigating narrow mountain passes, rolling through small communities?

Three crewmen were killed in that horrific derailment in early February when a loaded, parked, Canadian Pacific train of 112 cars started to roll down the track west of Lake Louise.

According to the Transportation Safety Board, it barrelled along for three kilometres before 99 cars and two locomotives toppled off a curve ahead of a bridge and into or near the river.

The only saving grace from this accident is that none of the derailed cars contained bitumen, heavy oils, or other petroleum products. If they had there would have been a toxic mess that would no doubt have cost millions of dollars to clean up.

There have been other CP derailments since. Not as deadly as the one in the Kicking Horse Pass but enough to raise questions about the dangers of shipping oil by train instead of pipeline.

On Feb. 28, 20 rail cars went off the tracks west of Banff. Three days later rail cars carrying diesel fuel and grain went off the tracks in Golden B.C. The next day 20 cars on a CP train derailed in Minnesota. And just this past Saturday two CP trains collided in the rail yards in Calgary forcing at least a dozen cars off the tracks.

Again, there were no dangerous goods spilled. But I have seen trains with well over 100 oil tankers roll through Calgary. During the 2013 flood a CP train carrying petroleum products derailed on a bridge and hung precariously over the surging Bow River.

According to the National Energy Board trains are shipping record amounts of oil. Between December 2017 and December 2018 crude oil exports by rail more than doubled to 353,789 barrels a day — add on domestic shipments and the total is even higher.

And it isn’t about to slow down.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley recently announced her government will spend about $3.7 billion to lease about 4,400 new rail cars to move up to 120,000 barrels per day by 2020, with shipments starting as early as July this year.

Apparently, trains loaded with oil rolling through B.C. isn’t what John Horgan’s government had anticipated when it vowed to use all the tools in its tool box to block the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Because now the B.C. government wants more regulatory control over rail shipments of heavy oil even though rail transportation falls under federal jurisdiction. And it wants to know exactly how much heavy oil is being shipped by rail in B.C.

So far that information has only been made available to federal agencies. B.C. will argue its case before the B.C. Court of Appeal on March 18.

It’s obvious that the B.C. government and its supporters don’t want any bitumen or heavy oils transported through B.C. This is not just about the expansion of one pipeline, it’s about stopping heavy oils, a key resource in Alberta, from being shipped anywhere by any means in B.C.

But now the B.C. government is dealing with the law of unintended consequences.

Holding up the Trans Mountain pipeline has led to more oil trains, and heightened the possibility that one of them could derail and spill barrels of heavy oil.

Horgan is no doubt praying that there will be no derailment of oil cars anywhere in B.C. Because if that happens he will have a lot to answer for.

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