Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Canada's Railways 'A disaster waiting to happen.'

Deregulation and safety cutbacks make a major disaster on Canada's railways virtually inevitable says The Canada Safety Council. They advocate returning Transport Canada's authority over safety standards - since 1999 the industry has been under 'self managed safety'.
The council's Emile Therien told CTV News that one possible result could be the "major evacuation of a major urban area ... and all the attendant cost that goes along with that."
This has personal resonance for me as I have a family cabin literally about 40 yards from the site of the CN Wabamun disaster in the summer of 2005. 40 yards uphill from it fortunately, or I probably wouldn't have a cabin anymore. As it is, tons of tarry Bunker C oil poured into the beautiful lake that my family has considered our second home since the 1930's.

We had to force CN to take the accident seriously and start cleaning the damage - once they had cleared the tracks enough to resume train passage they showed no urgency about dealing with the rivers of oil sludge flowing from the shattered tank cars into the lake. I was locked out and on the picket line in front of my Telus office when I got a phone call from my mother, who had been the first person on the scene dialling 911 on her cell after the accident nearly tossed her out of bed in the pre-dawn hours.

When she called me the next day this 'tough old lady' as she calls herself, who was still recovering from cancer treatments at the time, was sitting in a deck chair on the tracks along with dozens of local residents, members of the local native band and several other cottage dwellers, sweetly telling the blustering, furious CN cop ordering her to clear the area that she wasn't moving until CN began a clean up.

By the time I'd gotten up the highway from Calgary to Wabumun, which is about a 40 minute drive west of Edmonton, CN had found out that half the retired lawyers in Edmonton seemed to have cabins at Wabamun and had begun to realize that they were in trouble. Clean up had begun, hasty meetings were being called, experts flown in.

They tried to get us to sign away our rights for a quick check once, repeatedly downplayed and diminished the scale of the damage and their own liability, delayed and deferred any kind of accounting or recompense and failed to tell us for over a week that along with the comparatively non-toxic Bunker C, a tank full of wood preservative - basically turpentine - had also burst and had been pouring into the local water table for days.

The cleanup, such as it was, concentrated on the beaches and what floating tarry scum could be easily soaked up. Supposedly the oil sludge will naturally decompose, eaten by lake bacteria but still washing up on beaches or bubbling to the surface as tar balls for years, possibly decades. Trees that had been there all my life are gone and the light is harsh and strange on the beach I've been swimming, playing and sunning on since I was in diapers.

I'm told that 'Wabumun' is Cree for looking glass.

We had all noticed that the trains were longer, heavier and much, much faster in the years leading up to the disaster. At that time there had already been three serious derailments over just the previous ten years in the district. The only thing that seemed to change was that the trains got even heavier and faster.

We heard from CN employees after the accident that the company had downsized safety inspectors, sped up and overloaded trains, abusively hounded staff to meet tighter and tighter schedules and emphasized 'efficiency' over safety.

And now we have the Canada Safety Council recommending the amazing and novel idea that maybe there should be some government oversight over the railways that ship millions of tons of chemicals, gasses and toxins across our country every year before another one overturns in the middle of a major city. We also have a W5 story that makes a convincing case that Deregulation has left safety on Canada's railways a hair raising shambles.

Outside my window tonight, 26 floors above the core of downtown Calgary, heavy trains rumble and crash as they couple in the night.

1 comment:

Alison said...

Good for your mom, Cliff.
Deregulation only serves shareholders and the politicians they own.

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