Residents may never know when trains are hauling toxic and hazardous goods through their communities.
It is only when disaster strikes — like the horrific Lac Mégantic derailment, explosion and fire in Quebec in July that claimed 47 lives — that the hazardous cargo comes to public attention.
On Feb. 2, 2001, Red Deer had its own rail scare when when a CP Rail freight train derailed as it was getting ready to leave the Red Deer rail yards. Five cars carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed. One of the cars leaked nearly 72 tonnes of the noxious chemical.
More than 1,200 people were evacuated from north Red Deer. One man died as a result of the incident.
The City of Red Deer has a general idea of the transported products and materials but the rail companies, including Canada’s largest — Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway — are under no obligation to notify municipalities.
New federal rules mandating rail companies to inform municipalities is the first step in bridging the information gap and ultimately improving a community’s response and to emergencies.
Under the new measures, towns and cities will be notified when a load of petroleum-based products, anhydrous ammonia, chlorine, and hydrochloric acid or the like pass through Central Alberta.
The volumes and quantity of the cargo will be handed over to the municipalities on a quarterly basis after the trains have reached their destinations.
Paul Goranson, the city’s director of the Development Services Division, said the change is a significant shift because right now the city does not have a lot of detailed information.
“It’s more information than we have now,” he said. “Is it perfect? It’s difficult to say but it would give us more information to do effective planning.”
He said some information is better than no information.
“Currently we do not get the detailed information of what trains are carrying at any one time, nor how frequent that they are coming through Red Deer,” he said. “The situations where there are derailments, while serious when they occur, are very infrequent. With the new legislation, we are discussing with them what the detailed sharing of information will look like.”
Both e Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs said the new measures are a step in the right direction to strengthen rail safety.
They have put forward recommendations to ensure emergency responders have the information, training and emergency planning protocols to protect communities when these incidents occur.
FCM has called on the federal government “to close the information gap that left first responders in local communities unable to properly plan for rail emergencies.”
Claude Dauphin, FCM president said this sends a clear message that the federal government agrees that local governments need to know basic information about dangerous goods being transported through their communities.
“The Lac Mégantic tragedy and recent derailments in other parts of the country have underscored the critical role that municipalities play in planning for and responding to rail emergencies involving dangerous goods,” said Dauphin.
Red Deer fire chief Jack MacDonald said more product information provides concrete data for risk management planning, business analysis, partnerships and training rounding out the different components of emergency preparedness.
MacDonald said there is a huge array of hazardous materials passing through by train but also by truck.
MacDonald said some communities may be surprised to learn about the volumes and the types of product passing through the municipalities. He said the communities will be able to develop some concrete plans over a short period based on the common trend.
For some communities, he said, this knowledge may impact decisions to move railways out of the downtown core. Red Deer did this a number of years ago but other municipalities have not in Alberta.
The city uses an all hazards approach so that personnel know what to do in all situations as part of its emergency response plan. MacDonald said more information allows a more quantitative measure and would allow the city to take a specific approach to certain chemicals or products.
Since the 1980s, the outreach program, Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response (TransCAER), has promoted safe transportation and handling of hazardous materials. The voluntary initiative is led by Canada’s chemistry industry and its partners.
The program is geared for first responders but usually community officials who have a vested interest participate in the sessions.
The group has been holding workshops in Red Deer for several years including one this past August. Representatives from the various companies that may ship product through Central Alberta were also on hand to provide general information on products. A general purpose railroad tank car is converted into a classroom with the parts displayed for a hands-on tutorial. The instructors give a general idea of what to look for in tank cars, the different parts and pieces and simple fixes such as turning off valves.
“We try to educate them a little more on things to look for in case there are leaks or incidents and talk about the hazards they may encounter in any situation,” said Randy Mak, chairman of the Prairie Region TransCAER committee.
Mak said they are finding they are getting more inquiries in light of the recent train disasters in Quebec and other parts of the country.
“More people are sitting up and taking notice and want us to come out,” he said. “That’s good.”