Moving goods poses hurdle – Editorial (Saskatoon StarPhoenix – January 25, 2014)

Grain is stuck in farmers’ bins, Ontario’s Ring of Fire can’t be developed for lack of a means to reach markets, Canada’s Arctic doesn’t have the icebreaking or patrol capacity to monitor through-traffic much less ship out its own resources, and the American and Canadian transportation safety boards are warning that oil must not be shipped in tanker cars deemed dangerous since the 1990s.

In spite of a decade of determined efforts to transform its economy back to resource sales, Canada is increasingly looking like a Third World nation when it comes to getting those products to market. Not only is there a dearth of infrastructure to handle the volume, but there’s neither a workable plan to get that infrastructure in place nor a commitment to transfer the risks of the inadequacy to users rather than innocent bystanders.

As the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board reported this week, the “staggering” increase in the transportation of crude oil over North America’s rail systems has created a “significant risk for loss of life and damage to communities and the environment,” along the routes.

That risk was manifest in the deaths of 47 people in Lac-Megantic last year when 60 of the 63 Class 111 tankers in a runaway train spewed their deadly cargo of Bakken crude onto a fiery inferno that consumed the heart of the town and contaminated a nearby lake and river.

The report by the safety boards called for a rapid modernization of the tankers, a greater effort to redirect dangerous cargo from populated areas and more industry investment in emergency equipment. A day earlier, municipal leaders came out of a meeting in Montreal to demand that rail and oil industries be required to foot the bill for adequate insurance to cover the costs of a spill.

“Municipalities are 100 per cent united in the sense that it’s not our responsibility to pay for those cleanups,” said Mayor Don Atchison, who is on the municipalities group. “It’s not our responsibility to have to buy insurance for that.”

But it’s not just in oil shipments that Canada falls painfully short. Premier Brad Wall called a media scrum Wednesday to urge industry and senior government to break the logjam in transporting grain to market. Ships are waiting off shore while the continental transportation system is clogged, he said.

His government and the federal Conservatives have been touting grain marketing freedom for farmers, but that freedom means little if farmers can’t get grain to the markets and no longer have the collective clout to force the railroads to do better.

It’s a problem with which the potential developers of the resource-rich Ring of Fire can identify.

And while China, Russia and the U.S. are building icebreakers to open access to and through the Arctic Ocean, Canada’s once promised fleet of ships, which was reduced to one icebreaker and a handful of “slush-breaking” patrol ships, can’t get off the drawing board.

If Canada wants to be a hewer of wood and drawer of water, it must do far better on the fundamentals.

The editorials that appear in this space represent the opinion of The StarPhoenix. They are unsigned because they do not necessarily represent the personal views of the writers. The positions taken in the editorials are arrived at through discussion among the members of the newspaper’s editorial board, which operates independently from the news departments of the paper.

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