A derailment in the wrong place with the wrong kind of cargo could be disastrous for the fish habitat. (File photo)

A derailment in the wrong place with the wrong kind of cargo could be disastrous for the fish habitat. (File photo)

Are the northen B.C. railways getting more dangerous for communities?

Friends of Wild Salmon’s petition demands independent risk assessment of the rail corridor

The Friends of Wild Salmon, a northern B.C. group has come up with a petition titled “Prevent a Northern BC rail disaster before it’s too late” and is asking for an independent risk assessment of the rail corridor.

“The volume of dangerous goods being transported by rail through our communities and the Skeena and Fraser watersheds is set to sky rocket in the coming months. Three new propane and liquid petroleum export proposals in Prince Rupert and Kitimat are set to increase the current 50-60 rail cars per day to up to 410 cars per day without a risk assessment or requirement to use the safest technology,” says the petition, adding that the trains will run through the communities and along the banks of the region’s wild salmon rivers, carrying both explosive products and those that are acutely toxic to fish.

The Friends of Wild Salmon group is now calling upon the people of northern B.C. to sign the petition in the hope that the current Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra, would initiate an independent risk assessment under the Railway Safety Act, before any further increase in the transportation of dangerous goods.

Railway tracks run through the hearts of several communities in northern B.C. in fact, some would even argue that several communities like Vanderhoof, Burns Lake, Houston and Smithers gradually expanded around the railways.

The group shared several maps of evacuation zones which were defined by Canada’s Emergency Response Guidebook, developed by the governments of Canada, USA, Mexico and others. Evacuation zone maps of communities like Prince George, Vanderhoof, Burns Lake, Hazelton, Houston, Kitimat, Kitwanga, Port Edward, Terrace and Smithers, show the location of the rail line overlaid with the evacuation zones if there were a rail disaster involving cars carrying propane, methanol, or diesel.

The maps show that these communities fall directly in the evacuation zones with several schools, hospitals, fire departments and residential units falling inside the boundary.

Friends of Wild Salmon isn’t the first to sound the alarm as several communities and community groups have been demanding greater accountability from the railways.

Last year in October, a report titled Follow-up Audit on the Transportation of Dangerous Goods was released by the office of the auditor general of Canada. According to the report, while Transport Canada had made some improvements based on their audit in 2011 and 2015, there were still several areas that needed to be worked upon.

“We found that the department still had not followed up on some violations or granted final approval to many emergency response assistance plans. We also found that, although Transport Canada implemented our recommendation to develop a national risk-based system to prioritize its inspections, the underlying data was incomplete and outdated. Transport Canada has more progress to make to address the problems we identified in order to support the safe transportation of dangerous goods,” said the report.

Transport Canada is required to have emergency response assistance plan from companies transporting or importing certain dangerous goods representing a high risk to public safety. However the report found that 194 of the department’s 923 plans, i.e. 21 per cent, had interim approval as of Nov. 2019.

Of these, 22 had interim approval for more than 10 years and that the department was not meeting its own timelines to finalize its approval of interim plans.

A Smithers-based group, Friends of Morice-Bulkley, has also been advocating for increased rail safety and had even presented its concerns to the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako (RDBN) last year. In Dec. 2020 the group released a compilation on railway accidents, spills and casualties on the northern B.C. rail line.

The report put together by the group highlights the fact that the rail industry in Canada and the United States does not publish information about the number, frequency, nature, and scope of railway accidents and that makes it hard to find solid information and statistics on railway accidents. A compilation of media reports, statements from Canadian National Railway Company (CN) and independent audits of Transportation Safety Board of Canada, all have been put together to show how the rail safety is already lacking and needs improvement before adding additional rail traffic on the route.

The additional rail traffic that is set to travel through the northern B.C. communities is a result of Pembina’s Prince Rupert terminal that would add 50 propane cars each day, the terminal in Prince Rupert proposed by Vopak Development Canada that would potentially add almost 240 daily cars carrying hazardous substances and petroleum products and the Pacific Traverse Energy’s proposed propane export facility in Kitimat that would add another 60 cars per day passing through the region.

The local governments have also been raising their voice and trying get CN to take responsibility and improve transparency. However, the responses so far from CN have left everyone frustrated.

ALSO READ: ‘Lot of our concerns are still not being heard,’ say RDBN directors on CN’s response

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