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The federal government will, for the first time, designate crude oil a highly dangerous substance and introduce tougher safety and testing measures for shipping oil by rail, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has told The Globe and Mail.
The fundamental shift, in response to mounting concerns about crude safety, comes after a Globe investigation detailed how the oil that exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Que., last summer was far more dangerous than regulators and shippers considered. The investigation found that numerous warning signs about the volatility, corrosiveness and content of the crude were ignored before the disaster.
Until now, the government considered crude flammable, but not highly explosive. However, massive fireballs erupted in Lac-Mégantic on July 6 after a train carrying 72 tankers of crude oil derailed, killing 47 people and levelling much of the downtown. It is the worst railway disaster in Canadian history.
Ms. Raitt said on Thursday there is a clear need for higher safety standards to deal with the massive growth in oil being shipped by rail through cities and towns. Transport Canada also plans to pursue oil shippers who are not properly testing crude before shipping it in light of the Globe investigation, which found shippers were loading oil on trains without knowing whether it was potentially dangerous, despite an order from Ottawa to scrutinize shipments.
“That Globe and Mail article bothered them [Transport Canada officials] as much as it bothered me,” Ms. Raitt said. “What it has triggered is that reaction from Transport Canada making sure we focus more clearly” on fixing the problems.
“Everybody understands and knows what the urgency is,” Ms. Raitt said. “We want to get these things moved as fast as possible.”
Ms. Raitt called the change an “acknowledgment, intuitively, that [crude] is a dangerous good, and should be treated as such.”
For decades, specialized safety procedures were required for dozens of explosive hazardous materials, but not for crude oil. The Lac-Mégantic disaster, and a similar explosive derailment last month in Alabama, have shown that particular types of oil, such as the light crude shipped from North Dakota, can be unusually volatile. One retired rail inspector told The Globe that he has been told some of the oil, which is regularly shipped to refineries in Canada, is “damn near close to gasoline.”
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