Yesterday, the Conservatives used their majority on the House of Commons Transport Committee to vote down an NDP motion to examine rail safety in light of the Lac Megantic tragedy.

This is unfortunate. For even while the investigation into the specifics of what happened in Lac Megantic is ongoing, there is ample evidence that earlier safety warnings with respect to the transport of hazardous goods by rail have been ignored.

The federal government did introduce some new safety measures, but these were mostly no-brainers like ‘lock the door if you are going to leave the engine running in an unattended locomotive’. These measures, while welcome, shouldn’t distract us from how more troublesome warnings from safety experts on both sides of the border were ignored as the federal government allowed (and even encouraged) the dramatic increase in the amount of oil being shipped by rail in North America over the last three years.

In reading the internal government memos on this new wave of oil-by-rail (obtained by Greenpeace under Access to Information legislation), I was struck by how the Harper government was so focused on increasing the amount of money received per barrel of oil by getting more oil moving by rail, that it turned a blind eye to the recommendations of their own safety experts.

Aerial view of the aftermath from an explosion and fire in Lac-Mégantic after a train carrying crude oil derailed on July 6. 

A 2013 memo entitled “Transporting Crude Oil by Rail”, prepared for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, highlights the role that oil by rail can play in reducing the price discount facing Alberta’s oil industry and that “NRCan is currently meeting with Transport Canada to mutually understand how rail can be part of a solution to current market access challenges.”

The issue of safety is not raised in the NRCan memo, but it is discussed in memo entitled “Potential for Oil by Rail” prepared for Ed Fast, Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Denis Lebel, Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.  (Note: Greenpeace obtained three versions of the memo, dated May 28, 2012, December 14, 2012 and January 30, 2013, but the wording for this section was identical in all three): 

“TC [Transport Canada] has identified no major safety concerns with the increased oil on rail capacity in Canada, nor with the safety of tank cars that are designed, maintained, qualified and used according to Canadian and US standards and regulations. Indeed, Canada and the US work collaboratively to ensure the harmonization of rail safety requirements. The transportation of oil by rail does not trigger the need for a federal environmental assessment under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), however, proposals to construct new infrastructure to support the activity may be required to determine CEAA’s applicability.”

These assurances with respect to the safety of the rail tank cars (called 111A cars in Canada and DOT-111 cars in the United States) stands in marked contrast to the repeated warnings from Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

This is why Greenpeace, along with over 50 other organizations, is calling for an end to the use of these older-model tanker cars to carry petroleum products, along with a comprehensive safety review of how we move oil in this country.

These are not new concerns. As far back as 1994, the Canadian TSB wrote “The susceptibility of 111A tank cars to release product at derailment and impact is well documented. The transport of a variety of the most hazardous products in such cars continues.” The TSB has continued to highlight these problems:

“At approximately 1440 eastern daylight time on 17 August 2004, 18 tank cars of Canadian National train U-781-21-17, a petroleum product unit train travelling from the Ultramar Canada Inc. refinery in Lévis, district of Saint-Romuald, Quebec, and bound for Montréal, Quebec, derailed at Mile 3.87 of the Lévis Subdivision, in the marshy area of the Grande Plée Bleue, near Saint-Henri-de-Lévis. Approximately 200 000 litres of gasoline and diesel fuel spilled into the marshy area, but the spilled product was recovered. There were no injuries.

“The damage sustained by the Class 111A tank cars involved in this occurrence and the risks posed by the subsequent product release are typical of that identified in previous TSB investigations. In this occurrence, there was a significant spill of hydrocarbons when the tank shells and heads were breached even though the derailment happened in a marshy area where the surrounding terrain was particularly soft. Other occurrences investigated by the TSB have also revealed the vulnerability of this type of car to puncture, even in low-speed accidents (TSB report R99D0159 (Cornwall) and TSB report R05H0011 (Maxville)).”

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has been even more critical. It issued its first warning with respect to the 111 tanker cars in 1991. In March 2012, the NTSB wrote the following to the U.S. government agency considering higher standards for DOT-111 tanker cars:

“During a number of accident investigations over a period of years, the NTSB has noted that DOT-111 tank cars have a high incidence of tank failures during accidents. Previous NTSB investigations that identified the poor performance of DOT-111 tank cars include a May 1991 safety study as well as NTSB investigations of a June 30, 1992, derailment in Superior Wisconsin; a February 9, 2003, derailment in Tamaroa, Illinois; and an October 20, 2006, derailment of an ethanol unit train in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. In addition, on February 6, 2011, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) investigated the derailment of a unit train of DOT-111 tank cars loaded with ethanol in Arcadia, Ohio, which released about 786,000 gallons of product.

“The fact that DOT-111 general service tank cars experience more serious damage in accidents than pressure tank cars, such as DOT-105 or the DOT-112 cars, can be attributed to the fact that pressure tank cars have thicker shells and heads. The pressure cars are also usually equipped with metal jackets, head shields, and strong protective housings for top fittings. They do not have bottom outlet valves, which have been proven to be prone to failure in derailment accidents.

“Of the 15 derailed DOT-111 tank cars that piled up in this accident, 13 cars lost product from head and shell breaches or through damaged valves and fittings, or a combination of the two. This represents an overall failure rate of 87 percent and illustrates the continued inability of DOT-111 tank cars to withstand the forces of accidents, even when the train is traveling at 36 mph, as was the case in this accident. Head breaches resulting in the release of denatured fuel ethanol occurred in 9 of the 15 tank cars in the pileup. Head failures in seven of the cars were apparently caused by coupler or draft sill strikes. Two of the tank heads were breached by other striking objects or tank car structures. Additionally, side shells of three of the tank cars were breached as a result of car-to-car impacts. Clearly, the heads and shells of DOT-111 tank cars, such as those that are used to transport denatured fuel ethanol in unit trains, can almost always be expected to breach in derailments that involve pileups or multiple car-to-car impacts. The inability of the DOT-111 tank car heads and shells to retain lading in this accident is comparable with previously mentioned ethanol unit train accidents that occurred in New Brighton, Pennsylvania, in which 12 heads or shells were breached of 23 derailed tank cars, and in Arcadia, Ohio, in which 28 heads and shells of 32 derailed tank cars were breached.

“DOT-111 tank cars make up about 69 percent of the national tank car fleet, and denatured fuel ethanol is ranked as the largest-volume hazardous materials commodity shipped by rail. This accident demonstrates the need for extra protection such as head shields, tank jackets, more robust top fittings protection, and modification of bottom outlet valves on DOT-111 tank cars used to transport hazardous materials. The NTSB concluded that if enhanced tank head and shell puncture-resistance systems such as head shields, tank jackets, and increased shell thicknesses had been features of the DOT-111 tank cars involved in this accident, the release of hazardous materials likely would have been significantly reduced, mitigating the severity of the accident.”

Time to get these unsafe cars off the rails, or at least don’t fill them up with liquids that catch fire easily and explode.