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Railway secrecy concerns mayor
White Rock is not receiving much comfort for promising confidentiality on dangerous goods shipped by rail through the community.
So says Mayor Wayne Baldwin, who is critical of a directive from Transport Canada that requires railway companies to share limited information on dangerous goods with municipalities and first responders – but in return for not disclosing the information to the public.
In a worst-case scenario – a freight train derailment – first responders would still have only a guess what they might be dealing with, Baldwin said, based on past shipments.
“We don’t know what’s coming through in advance,” the mayor said. “We should be notified in advance when dangerous goods are coming through, whether it’s chlorine gas, or hydrochloric acid, propane or liquid natural gas, and, certainly, crude oil in tanker cars.”
And while the directive, issued in November, requires each municipality to identify an emergency-planning official, the information shared by railway companies makes it hard to strategize an appropriate first response by emergency crews, Baldwin said.
“They could think it’s propane when it’s crude oil, or hydrochloric acid when it’s chlorine,” he said. “Their approach will likely be very cautious, which would mean that time is lost. The first reaction would probably be evacuation, which is not an easy thing to achieve. It’s not very comforting.”
A spokesperson for BNSF, however, notes that in the event of a derailment, the railway’s Hazmat team would immediately liaise with first responders.
Baldwin’s comments came amid release of information that railcar shipments of oil and petroleum products through B.C. have increased exponentially in the last few years – 3,381 in 2013, up from 41 in 2011.
He said that while White Rock had “no choice, really” on signing the confidentiality agreement to receive information on dangerous goods shipped, there should be more required of the railways in return.
He said he’d like to arrange a meeting between city officials and transport ministry staff soon, following up on a letter sent in April expressing White Rock’s concerns to Transport Minister Lisa Raitt.
The mayor said he recognizes the current Transport Canada directive comes as a result of work done by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities rail safety committee, following the Lac Mégantic derailment disaster last July.
“I give Minister Raitt credit for taking action, which is long overdue, and I’m sure she has restraints,” Baldwin said. “We’re making steps, but they’re baby steps. There’s a lot more that needs to be done.”
He said he does not “buy” arguments that security is the major consideration for railway companies keeping quiet on dangerous goods that are being shipped through the community, although he declined to speculate on whether the companies simply want to avoid the bad optics of releasing such information.
“The public is pretty much aware of what’s going through. There are a lot of train watchers out there – I got alerted to all the oil products coming through by people at Crescent Beach who had been watching long trains of container cars.
“I find it difficult to believe that (security) is the biggest concern of the companies. If it were, they’d have their little trucks going up and down the line even more than they do now. If there was a terrorist, it wouldn’t be hard to take a train out.”
Baldwin said the ultimate answer is to route dangerous goods away from the heavily populated beach areas. He repeated a suggestion the city made last month that BNSF reroute such shipments east, via Sumas, where it has a spur line that could connect with CN and CP lines there.
“(The railways) should be treated like trailer truck traffic – we have dangerous cargo routes for trucks, why not for the railway companies?
“They’ve really had their way for a century or so,” he added.
“Maybe it’s time to push back a little.”