March 26, 2014
Rail Safety in Canada: Senate ENEV Committee Report in wake of the disaster in Lac-Mégantic.
Honourable senators, on March 4, Senator Neufeld called the attention of the Senate to the twelfth report of the Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources. He offered his insight into the goals and purpose of our report, and I am pleased to do the same. The report, Moving Energy Safely: A Study of the Safe Transport of Hydrocarbons by Pipeline, Tankers and Railcars in Canada, is an outstanding example of the kind of work we do as senators.
In July 2012, the committee completed a three-year study on the current state and future of Canada’s energy sector. During this study, it became evident that there were gaps in information regarding the transportation of bulk hydrocarbons in Canada.
Members of the committee agreed this issue was of great importance to Canadians and that it required further investigation. On November 28, 2012, the committee sought authorization to study three modes of transportation of bulk hydrocarbons in Canada: transmission pipelines, tankers and railcars. The report states:
The goal was to examine the current state of emergency and spill prevention, preparedness and response frameworks under federal authority and to make recommendations to improve public safety and the protection of the environment.
This goal was set amidst growing concerns over rapidly expanding oil and gas production. From the outset, it was clear that the committee was engaged in an area of study that was not only timely, but critical for future planning and regulation.
The committee travelled on several fact-finding missions across the country, including visits to Calgary, Hamilton, Saint John, Halifax, Vancouver, Seattle and Valdez, Alaska. Over the course of 18 meetings we heard from 51 expert witnesses including provincial and federal regulators, industry representatives, engineers and scientists, spill response organizations, First Nations, and environmental groups.
The testimony was wide-ranging and informative: Witnesses from industry discussed their safety records; marine spill response service teams outlined their capacity to contain and clean up a spill; and environmental groups expressed concern about the behaviour of spilled bitumen in the natural environment.
When the study began, pipelines were at the forefront of discussions in the media and elsewhere. However, the committee’s decision to address three different modes of transportation of oil and gas, particularly rail, proved to be a wise choice. Throughout the course of the study, the committee learned that although the transportation of crude, petroleum products and other dangerous goods by rail is not new in Canada, it has exploded in recent years. According to the rail industry, 160,000 carloads of crude were shipped in 2013, up substantially from 500 in 2009.
Then, on July 6, just 16 days after the committee heard from its last witness, a runaway train carrying 72 tankers of crude oil crashed into the downtown of Lac-Mégantic, killing 47 people. This event has marked a turning point in public awareness of rail transport.
Suddenly, the same questions the committee had put to witnesses began to circulate in national media: Who is liable if a spill occurs? What are the regulations surrounding safety improvements for DOT-111 tank cars? Have industry and regulators responded to the recommendations made by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development in December 2011? The section on rail in Moving Energy Safely addresses these important questions and makes concrete recommendations on how to move forward. The committee recommends:
That Transport Canada apply appropriate minimum liability coverage thresholds to ensure rail companies have the financial capacity to cover damages caused by a major incident.
That Transport Canada review, in cooperation with the United States Department of Transportation, the use of CTC-111A and DOT-111 tank cars and consider accelerating the transition to the revised standard.
That Transport Canada implement all the recommendations from the December 2011 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development related to the transport of dangerous goods by rail.
It should also be stressed that the strength of this report goes beyond the list of recommendations. As the chapter on rail demonstrates, the committee took a wide-angle view of the industry and its position as a unique transportation network. Unlike other industries, rail “can move products virtually anywhere” and “their capacity to respond quickly with flexible cargo options” provides stability in a shifting market.
Railways reach into remote communities. They provide a complement to pipelines through delivery to niche markets. Let us not forget that this country was united by the railway; it is essential to our history and to our future. And yet there is no question that the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic has changed the way Canadians think about the transportation of dangerous goods by rail. Among other things, it has forced us to re-evaluate how the industry itself monitors safety and actively promotes it. The committee heard much on the subject from rail industry witnesses who spoke readily of the “culture of safety” deeply embedded in all aspects of their corporate culture.
In addition, the committee heard from safety experts about the Swiss Cheese Model of Accident Causation, where defences against accidents are represented by slices of Swiss cheese. Holes in a company’s defences can vary in size and position, and represent the degree of weakness or breach within each defence. An accident is usually caused by a series of failures at weak points in a company’s defences. When these weak points momentarily align in the presence of a threat or danger, an accident occurs.
How then is such risk of failure and the potential accident minimized?
Safety experts testified that each company must be preoccupied with identifying and assessing every small failure in its operations. The committee was told by the National Energy Board that leaders have a particular responsibility to promote safety culture within their organizations. This includes the ability to empower front-line employees to question procedures and investigate safety concerns at any point. Safety experts affirmed that this type of leadership produces an environment of continuous learning and understanding in which holes in safety defences can be identified before an accident occurs.
No doubt Canadians remain preoccupied by the catastrophic series of failures that occurred on July 6, and require assurance from all parties — industry, regulator and government — that all precautions are in place to minimize the risk of recurrence. We know that it can take years to gain “social licence” and, yet, it can take just moments for all that goodwill to be lost.
Honourable senators, the disaster in Lac-Mégantic was of unprecedented proportion. In our report, the committee speculates that this event will incite significant reform in the rail industry, equivalent to the impact that the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill had on marine transport.
There is no question that progress has been made. To date, we have seen a number of improvements including tougher standards for DOT-111 tank cars; a push for new emergency response assistance plans for crude oil; and better lines of communication between municipalities and rail companies.
There is more work to be done, but I am confident that we have the information we need to develop strong regulations to guide industry in their efforts to protect Canadians and the environment. I am confident that we will see the positive effects of these changes in the near future, and I am confident, honourable senators, that this report has made a significant contribution to the future of rail safety in Canada.