Sudbury

Five years after fiery train crashes in Gogama, is carrying oil by rail safer?

It has been five years since two oil trains jumped the tracks near Gogama and exploded into flames. Investigations were completed and recommendations made, but there are still concerns about how safe it is to ship oil by rail.

CN Rail refused to comment on response to train derailments from 2015

This oil train crash on Mar. 7, 2015 near Gogama came just three weeks after another CN oil train derailed in the area. (Transportation Safety Board)

Like they have since the small northern Ontario town was founded, trains rumble through Gogama several times a day, just steps from people's homes. 

Gerry Talbot says in the last five years he looks at those oil trains differently and in the back of his mind, imagines what would have happened if one of those two oil trains had exploded in the midst of the village of 300 people. 

"We continue to see the tanker cars pass by every day. You know it could happen again," says the lifelong resident of Gogama.

In the months that followed the derailments in 2015, there was lots of talk about the possible contamination of the Makami River, but Talbot says that has died down.

CN continues to monitor the site.

The clean-up from the two derailments cost the provincial government $618,000. The Ministry of Environment says CN at first refused to pay the bill, appealing to the Environmental Review Tribunal, but was eventually ordered to cover the government's costs.

The nearby Mattagami First Nation is suing CN for $30 million in environmental damages caused by the derailments.

Gogama's volunteer firefighters were first on the scene of the derailment just 4 km from the community in March 2015. (courtesy of the OPP)

Talbot would like to see tighter speed limits on the trains travelling through communities, but he knows that there will always be a risk for rail towns like his. 

"If you're going 50 or 20, the chances of it exploding are still there," he says. 

Transport Canada recently lowered speed limits for trains carrying dangerous goods following two fiery oil train derailments on CP tracks in Saskatchewan. But that move is expected to be temporary.

There was also a CN oil train that derailed recently near the town of Emo in northwestern Ontario.

The bridge over the Makami River near Gogama where a train derailed in March 2015, spilling oil, some of which can still be seen in the water. (Erik White/CBC )

Ian Naish, a railway safety consultant who once worked as an investigator for the Transportation Safety Board, says there is a constant balancing of safety and profit in the rail industry.

Slower trains would be safer for the public and rail workers, but would cost the railroads millions of dollars. 

"From a safety perspective obviously that would solve a lot of problems, operationally for the railways that would cause other problems," says Naish.

"But the trouble is the oil by rail traffic since 2017 has gone up by at least 50 percent.They're moving bigger tank cars and so you have increased traffic, increased stress on the track and is track maintenance keeping up with that? I don't know."

The Transportation Safety Board is currently investigating several other oil train derailments, including this one on CN tracks in northwestern Ontario near the town of Emo. (Transportation Safety Board)

In its report on the second Gogama derailment— which on Mar. 7, 2015 caused an explosion and oil spill just 4 km from the village— the safety board blamed poor track maintenance and called on the federal government to increase standards.

CN Rail declined an interview for this story.

But Jean-Francois Migneault, the president of United Steelworkers 2004 representing some 3,000 maintenance workers at CN, says things have greatly improved in the last five years.

He says his members are doing more regular inspections and more thorough tests of track conditions, but he says there is no way to totally take away the danger.

"There's many, many things in place to avoid this kind of accident. But we can't prevent everything all the time," says Migneault. 

Gerry Talbot of Gogama looks at photos of the derailments from 2015, which he says still have people in the small town on edge about the oil trains regularly rolling right through their community. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

In its report into the first Gogama derailment from Feb. 14, 2015, which happened in the bush 30 km away from the village, the safety board called on the federal government to do a comprehensive study on how dangerous goods should be transported.

Transport Canada committed to completing the study in the summer of 2019. It now says that study is in its final review and that the department intends to publish it when ready. 

Marc Serre, the Liberal MP for Nickel Belt which includes Gogama, was asked to comment for this story, but was not made available to speak with CBC. 

A Transportation Safety Board investigator stands beside a damaged tank car near Gogama in March 2015. (TSB)

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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