B.C. leaders get on board rail-safety alliance under threat of train derailments

VANCOUVER — In the days after a train laden with crude oil exploded and burned in a small Quebec town, killing 47 people, the city of New Westminster, B.C., took inventory of the safeguards for its four railways.

“We realized there really wasn’t anything in place,” said Coun. Chuck Puchmayr. “A disaster of that nature would be even more devastating than it was in Lac-Megantic.”

Puchmayr and other local politicians in British Columbia are banding together with 165 elected leaders from the U.S. Pacific Northwest to pressure federal governments in both countries to overhaul antiquated railway laws.

The American-led Safe Energy Leadership Alliance is lobbying for new protections from train accidents in Canada and the United States.

The group’s chairman is Seattle-based King County Executive Dow Constantine, who said a united front is the only way cities can oppose the influence of the coal and oil industries. He said national governments wield almost all authority over the matter.

“The sobering conclusion is that although we can try to mitigate the damage from a fire and explosion … there’s very little we can actually do to put the fire out,” Constantine told reporters on Friday, before meeting with members in New Westminster.

“We are looking to raise the profile of these issues so we can raise awareness among those who can actually do something to help.”

Safety and the environment are shared concerns among politicians in B.C., Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and California, he said. Other problems include traffic congestion, fossil fuels displacing locally produced goods for transport, and the impact of coal dust on human health.

“I was quite blown away to find out how coastal this issue is,” said Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer, who emphasized the alliance is not debating resource extraction.

Coal producers don’t care about borders, they’re just looking for a terminal to bring it to market, she said.

Canadian railway rules have hardly changed since they were written a century ago, when trains moved through sparsely populated land that only later would become cities, Reimer added.

Policy-makers didn’t predict that hazardous materials like coal and oil would be hauled right through centres of hundreds of communities when passing the original Rail Act of 1903, she said.

Communities were stripped of the right to regulate or legislate the operation of railways in that act, and Reimer said officials are worried they won’t be able to mitigate emergencies involving hazardous materials.

Transport Canada says only 500 cars of crude oil were shipped by rail in 2009, but that number jumped to 160,000 in 2013. Those loads combine with 400,000 more shipped in the U.S. in the same year, because North America’s railways are interconnected, the agency said.

“We need information, we need proper planning, we need the co-ordination, we need the communications infrastructure and frankly we need the money,” Reimer said.

She pointed to several small-scale disasters in the region since January 2014, including a coal train derailment in Burnaby, an oil spill in Vancouver’s harbour, and a chemical fire at its port.

A related resolution was passed unanimously Friday at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention. Delegates called for provincial and federal governments to expand risk assessment and response planning for a proposed thermal-coal-export terminal in Surrey, B.C.

Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter

Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press