Auditor general cites 'significant weaknesses' in rail safety

Opponents of a proposal to ship crude oil through the Port of Churchill are echoing concerns raised by Canada's auditor general this week about rail safety in general.

OmniTrax Canada seeking support for plan to ship crude oil by rail north

Federal Auditor General Michael Ferguson discusses his 2013 fall report in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Opponents of a proposal to ship crude oil through the Port of Churchill are echoing concerns raised by Canada's auditor general this week about rail safety in general.

A new report by Auditor General Michael Ferguson says Transport Canada has to do a better job of identifying risks of transporting dangerous goods by rail across the country.

OmniTrax Canada wants to transport crude oil by rail to Europe via the northern Manitoba port. Crude would be transported by rail north — crossing polar bear territory along the way — to tanker ships in Churchill.

But for months, environmentalists, northern residents and even the Manitoba government have protested the company's plans, citing concerns about safety and potential environmental impacts.

The issue of rail safety in Canada was raised by Ferguson as part of his annual fall report on Tuesday. The report did not make a specific reference to the OmniTrax project.

Ferguson said he is concerned about "significant weaknesses" that have been found in Transport Canada's oversight of rail safety.

Transport Canada completed only one in four of its planned audits of federal railways over a three-year period, due in part to a lack of inspectors, his audit report found.

Long-standing issues remain

While Transport Canada made progress in addressing many of the recommendations from a Railway Safety Act review, the audit report found that a number of long-standing and important safety issues remain.

There were issues of "trespassing, grade crossings, concerns about the environment, the collection of data on safety performance from federal railways, and the implementation and oversight of safety management systems," the report found.

The report's findings were encouraging to critics of the OmniTrax oil shipment plan, like Paul Ratson of Nature 1st, an eco-tourism company in Churchill.

"There is a certain amount of comfort when it is coming from high levels in the government like the auditor general," Ratson told CBC News on Tuesday.

"But if every single person in this town stood up and said, 'No, we don't want that here,' we don't have the power here to stop it."

Test shipment postponed until spring

OmniTrax Canada president Merv Tweed says a test shipment of crude oil was planned for this fall, but it has been postponed until the spring.

"We realized that we needed to do more consultation, we needed to do more outreach," he said.

Company officials are visiting communities along the rail line, consulting people and encouraging them to support the rail plan.

"We have hired organizations and people to give us the plan that we need to move forward with," Tweed said.

"If they say we can do it safely, and we believe we can, then we'll proceed."

Tweed added that while rail disasters like the one in Lac-Mégantic, Que., are tragic, he believes crude and similar products can be transported by rail safely.

"If you look outside your door in Winnipeg today, you'll see hundreds of rail cars hauling fuel and petroleum and oil through our community, and nobody blinks an eye because they've done it safely. We're no different," he said.

But Ratson said he's skeptical, and he wants companies like OmniTrax to "prove to us that it's 100 per cent safe."

"The big companies can say whatever they want and they say it will never happen … but then when it does happen, it's always worse than anticipated," he said.

OmniTrax does not need a permit to proceed with its plans, but Transport Canada has said it will monitor any oil shipments to make sure they comply with federal regulations.


  • An earlier version of this story, along with its headline, left the incorrect impression that a report by Auditor General Michael Ferguson had made specific references to OmniTrax Canada and its Churchill project. That was not the case.
    Nov 27, 2013 5:45 PM CT


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