It is not at all clear that Transport Canada has the resources to approve, inspect and maintain current emergency response plans, let alone enough funding for a recommended expansion of the program, says a government-commissioned rail safety report.
A working group made up of first responders, shippers of hazardous goods, oil and gas companies and municipal leaders says "there is an urgent need to identify and implement an effective response to the dangers presented by large spills of flammable liquids such as the highly volatile Bakken crude oil, ethanol and other products."
All those goods are rumbling through Canadian towns and cities without anyone having much idea of what, where and how it is being transported, said the panel.
The study is one of three that were commissioned by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt in the wake of last summer's deadly derailment, fire and explosions in Lac-Megantic, Que., which claimed 47 lives.
It paints a troubling picture.
"The public need assurance that in the event of another incident, a plan and resources are in place to mitigate the impact of the incident on lives, property and the environment," said the report, delivered Jan. 31 and quietly posted to the Transport Canada web site last Friday.
The reports were made public three days after the Conservative government delivered a federal budget that provided no additional funding for rail safety initiatives.
Emergency response lagging behind transport expansion
The working group found that emergency response plans — required on some dangerous goods since the 1979 derailment of a train carrying deadly chlorine gas in Mississauga, Ont. — have not kept pace with the huge expansion of flammable goods transport, including ethanol and crude oil.
The report specifically cites oil from the Bakken oilfields in North Dakota and Montana, which has proven to be especially perilous.
It recommends that emergency response assistance plans, or ERAPs, be required for the transport of all flammable liquids, including for trains carrying only a single loaded tank car.
But it also notes Transport Canada can't even keep on top of current emergency response requirements, given its resources.
"Continuing budget reductions have had a major impact on the (Transportation Dangerous Goods) Directorate and it is most likely that new funding will be needed to manage the additional workload that will result if ERAPs are legislated for flammable liquids," said the report.
It wasn't the only safety gap identified.
Inventories of equipment for fighting the kind of oil fire that engulfed Lac-Megantic appear to be "non-existent," the study says.
More fundamentally, the report found that no data exists to properly "quantify what dangerous goods are being transported, by what means and over what transportation corridors."
"Without data on dangerous goods movements and volumes it is not possible to know what communities are at risk and to what degree," said the report.
It found that an emergency directive Raitt issued last fall, requiring railways to inform municipalities at least once a year of dangerous goods travelling through, would begin to fill the data void.
National emergency response system needed
But for a Conservative government that has generally shied from any kind of national program-building, the report says municipalities and even rail carriers simply can't go it alone on emergency response and a common, national system is needed.
"It is a significant challenge to build a national response network which would include acquiring the correct types and quantity of firefighting foam and foam equipment, identify locations where it would be staged and provide training to municipal fire services, railway personnel, emergency response contractors, and others," states the report.
The working group also requested, due to the data limitations it faced, that it be kept together to further study the issue.
Raitt's office said in a statement that Transport Canada is reviewing the working group recommendations "on an urgent basis."
We remain committed to working with all stakeholders to make Canada's rail and transportation of dangerous goods systems safer and more secure," spokeswoman Ashley Kelahear said in an email.
Two other reports from working groups identified ongoing issues with the type of tank car, known as DOT-111s, that are used to transport flammable liquids, and also gaps in understanding the volatility of crude oil being transported.
The reports recommend even more stringent safety standards for tank cars than those announced last month by Ottawa, and more frequent, rigorous testing of flammable products on the rails.