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Harper's dangerous petro-politicking with rail safety

There was more smoke and mirrors on Canada's rail tracks last week when the Harper Conservative government finally announced their long-awaited changes to rail safety 292 days after the preventable Lac-Mégantic disaster.

Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt announced that the federal government plans to phase out or retrofit older DOT-111 tank cars over the next three years. Further, a certain 5,000 tank cars that are the least crash resistant will be removed within 30 days by ministerial order. Mandatory emergency response plans will be required for all crude oil shipments, some reduction in speed of trains carrying dangerous goods, and changes to insurance liability. Let's also remember both Liberal and Conservative governments have known for over 20 years that these tankers were unsafe, and both made a conscious choice not to act until tragedy struck (and still could again).  While some of the new measures are a slight shift in the right direction, despite the optics these are simply minimal changes that won't create the significant actions needed to overhaul current practices.

Rait stated that "Officials have advised us three years is doable ... the best saw-off between what industry said that they could do and what is wanted by the Transportation Safety Board." As one energy and economics commentator from Alberta pointed out, "Doable is another word for economically feasible. The directive represents a reasonable timetable for shippers to address the market-access logistics to get oil to refiners rather than create any sort of 'stretch objective' for industry to quickly remove a known threat to public safety."

Again, the Conservative government proves itself to be a master of spin and doubletalk; the media seems to have largely accepted this news with either Orwellian 'goodthink' or 'doublethink.' Headlines read like a buffet of stale semantics; "Ottawa to phase out unsafe tank cars"; "Canada Toughens Rules for Rail Shipment of Dangerous Goods"; "Canada to phase rail tankers involved in Lac-Mégantic crash"; "Canada to drop 'flawed' tankers after Lac-Mégantic blast"; and so on and so on.

One of the claims is that over the next three years some the older DOT-111 tank cars will be fazed out, while others retrofitted. With a working life of between 30-40 years, the DOT-111 tank car is considered the workhorse of the North American fleet. These cars, which carry between 20,000 - 30,000 gallons make up about 70 per cent of all tankers on the rails. There are currently about 228,000 DOT-111 tank cars in North America, of which 171,000 carry hazmat. Out of that approximately 94,000 carry flammable liquids such as bakkan, crude and tarsands oil, along with ethanol and many other dangerous liquids. At the same time, only 14,000 carrying oil and ethanol are built to the latest 2011 safety standards.

There are five companies manufacturing 95 per cent of the North American oil tanker fleet (none of which will give information regarding the massive manufacturing backlog) and others in the industry simply laugh at the current proposal. The RSI's year-end 2013 report showed deliveries of 28,996 tank cars, and a backlog of 55,386. With builder capacity expected to be approximately 30,000 cars per year, this backlog will take a minimum of to two years to fill, if not longer. We are told there are 5,000 tanker cars that will be removed in 30 days. Where this number comes from and how many operate in Canada is anyone's guess (including Lisa Rait), but it sure looks like action. If they are so dangerous that they needed to be drastically taken off the tracks in 30 days, why was this decision not made months or years ago? This type of obfuscation distracts people from the real point that we should be asking -- is the danger of shipping explosive crude by rail through our towns, communities, and farmland is worth the risk. As Brain Stevens from Unifor, which represents thousands of unionized rail inspectors, states, "This announcement really falls short, and lets Canadians down, these DOT-11 cars, they should be banned from carrying crude oil immediately. They can still be used to carry vegetable oil, or diesel fuel, but for carrying this dangerous crude there should be an immediate moratorium and that should have been easy enough for the minister to do and she failed to do that."

So why no real action or a moratorium as the Council of Canadians has been calling for? According to the rail industry, there were only 500 carloads of crude oil shipped by rail in Canada in 2009, while in 2013 there were 160,000 carloads. In the U.S. there were 400,000 carloads in 2013, up from 10,800 in 2009. As well, approval for new oil-train terminals and facilities has increased drastically. So, the truth is this government would rather gamble with the safety of communities, towns and farmland than inconvenience their friends in rapidly expanding the tar sands and fracked bakkan oil plays.

What about some of the other announcements today -- like that emergency response plans will be required for all crude oil shipments, some reduction in speed of trains carrying dangerous goods, and changes to insurance liability?

Nationally, while it may vary in some communities, around 10 per cent of all products moved by each year by Canada's two major Class-1 Rail Companies are dangerous goods (Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, operate about three-quarters of Canada's rail network). These travelling bombs and toxic tankers can be spotted in our communities daily.  Over the last 25 years, Transport Canada has increasingly devolved the responsibility for, and management of, safety rules to the companies themselves; this is occurring at the same time as regulatory harmonization initiatives have been underway since NAFTA. Further, along with the Harper governments current cuts, "Transport Canada's rail safety division budget was cut by 19 per cent from 2010 to 2014 and frozen until at least 2015-16. The transportation of dangerous goods budget has been frozen since 2010." So, "this is the equivalent of one inspector for every 4,500 carloads of crude oil, up from one per 14 in 2009. By the end of this year, it will be one per 9,000 carloads."

Lets remember, in 2012 prior to the Lac-Magnetic disaster the president and CEO of the Railway Association of Canada (RAC), Michael Bourque, was saying in regards to the concept of regulations that:

"If today's commercial context is replaced with a regulatory framework, it could quickly erode that trust because information that is currently shared between railways and customers... A regulatory approach could stifle the innovative solutions we have seen from the marketplace, reduce supply chain efficiency and negatively impact Canadian railways and their customers. Any new regulatory approach will not replicate the commercial marketplace -- no matter how well it is written."

In response to last week's announcement, the RAC stated, "The rail sector believes rail tank cars used for transporting flammable liquids should be built to the highest standards. Today's announcement of a three-year phase-out for legacy tank cars marks an important step toward a fleet of cars that will enhance safety." I'm sure you can read between the lines here. While the painfully obvious step of having defined emergency response plans for crude by rail shipments is positive, it does nothing to address lowering the risk accidents in the first place with proper oversight and safety.

The minister talked about lowering speeds in some areas for unit trains carrying dangerous goods, but there was no talk of requirements for route planning and avoiding populated communities. Going around cities and populated areas might cut into the highly profitable rail industry's bottom line; they prefer the shortest routes possible and the Harper government is willing to roll the dice on your safety once again. Further, as noted previously, despite the fact that this hazardous freight continues to be shipped through many neighbourhoods across Canada, government and rail companies refuse to make this information public (citing "security concerns"), despite a community's right to know what is moving past their homes, schools, hospitals and daycares. If a community was able to know what passes by them daily, they would surely demand rerouting which would cost big rail and oil. Again, Lisa Raitt and Stephen Harper are playing their all-too-common role as shills for corporate interest groups.

Lastly, changes to insurance rates. The minister touts that the Government of Canada has invested $60 million to support response and recovery efforts in Lac-Mégantic and committed up to $95 million for decontamination efforts. The now-bankrupt rail company responsible for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy only had $25 million in insurance, while costs are expected to be close to $1 billion (with Canadians left on the hook to pay the rest). Why TSBC and the Ministry of Transportation approved this company with such alarmingly low insurance is still unclear, but I am sure you can guess what the correlation is. What most people don't know is that rail companies don't own the majority of rail cars; oil companies and private shipping fleets do, but until now had the liabilities. For years the rail companies have been looking for ways to ameliorate their already substandard insurance costs without facing lawsuits from fleet suppliers. Now, much after the fact and billions of public dollars later, they will likely be handed the leverage they want from the government. At the same time, even after a difficult winter season, the demand for crude by rail saw CP report a 16 per cent year-over-year increase, a net profit of $254 million in the first quarter, and revenue in the quarter rose to $1.509 billion. At CN, there was a 12.2 per cent increase, a net profit of $623 million in the first quarter, revenue in the quarter rose to $2.693 billion.

What's clear is that with this announcement we have the Harper government putting lipstick on a pig. The systemic issues and structural dangers with shipping oil by rail remain swept under the carpet until the next disaster and loss of life.

The Council of Canadians continue to support the call for an immediate moratorium on the use of DOT-111 cars for shipping oil by rail.

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