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More trains could mean more problems: St-Lazare mayor

St-Lazare’s mayor said residents of his town, and the region in general, should be concerned about the prospect of thousands of new trains carrying oil through the region by year’s end.

Suncor Energy Inc. says it plans to begin receiving crude oil shipped by rail from Western Canada at its east-end Montreal refinery by the end of the year. That would likely mean much more oil to be transported over the rail lines that cut through the region, operated by both CP and CN.

Thousands of barrels of oil would be shipped by train through the city of Montreal and other island municipalities to be processed at the company’s refinery on Sherbrooke St. E. in Pointe-aux-Trembles.

St-Lazare is a major thoroughfare for trains transporting oil east. Grimaudo, who sits on the public safety committee of the regional county government (MRC), said 80 per cent of the oil heading east goes through the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region.

“Of course it’s concerning, and it should be concerning for anyone along that train line,” he said.

He’s calling on the MRC to study the issue of rail safety, and examine whether the emergency plans in place need to be improved. He’s also hoping for a co-ordinated effort among municipalities to prevent possible disasters.

The July 6 derailment and explosion in the town of Lac-Mégantic, which killed 47 people, hit close to home for St-Lazare residents. A train derailed in the town in 2010, after a stockpile of tools and equipment kept by the tracks caused a landslide. While there were no serious injuries in the St-Lazare incident, the Lac-Mégantic disaster highlights the potential danger residents could face.

An inspection of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said the ground in St-Lazare where the derailment occurred is prone to landslides, and weight of the equipment stored on the side of the tracks caused the ground to slide.

The train’s conductor initiated an emergency stop when he saw the landslide, which had spilled onto the track.

The investigation concluded there isn’t any danger of further landslides in the area, so long as minimal safety requirements are met.

“If the tracks are left the way they are, and the rules and regulations are respected, I don’t think we have a huge threat of derailment,” Grimaudo said.

Suncor president Steve Williams said the Montreal refinery should begin receiving between 10,000 to 15,000 barrels of oil per day by rail by the end of the year, eventually reaching up to 30,000 barrels per day, or “a bit more.”

Many of those trains could be passing behind Vaudreuil-Dorion resident  Michel Girard’s home. Griard, who has a track about 200 feet behind his house is part of a residents’ action group demanding more regulations around trains. Of particular concern to Girard and his group is the speed at which trains travel through residential areas. He said the noise and vibrations disturb him at home, but he also has safety concerns.

“The other day there was a train full of tanker cars heading east, crossing another one going west,” he said. “If there’s any problem at that point, it would be disastrous.”

Suncor is installing rail facilities near the refinery to receive the crude oil, said company spokesperson Michael Southern. The train shipments would contain conventional crude oil coming from Suncor and other producers in Western Canada, he said.

The Suncor refinery can refine 137,000 barrels of oil per day. The majority of its crude oil comes from countries around the Atlantic Ocean basin. That oil is more expensive than western Canadian oil, Southern said, and is shipped by pipeline from Portland, Maine, to Montreal.

In a conference call with investors, Williams said the Montreal refinery project is part of a plan to ensure market access for the company’s oil products.

Southern said Canadian Pacific or Canadian National — or both — could be Suncor’s rail suppliers. Both railways have train tracks on the island of Montreal, although CN’s lines travel further east than CP’s lines.

According to the Canadian Railway Association, shipments of oil by rail in Canada have skyrocketed from 500 carloads in 2009 to an expected 140,000 carloads in 2013. That’s equivalent to 230,000 barrels of oil each day, the association says.

With the accident in Lac-Mégantic and the increase in oil shipments by rail, Quebec should hold an inquiry into the safety of its transportation, whether by pipeline, rail, ships or trucks, said Steven Guilbeault, senior director of the Montreal-based environmental group Équiterre.

A Quebec engineering professor agrees with Guilbeault, saying it’s time the federal government launches a public inquiry into how hazardous materials are transported across Canada.

“We’ve normalized bad practices in this country because, until recently, nothing terrible had happened,” said Jean-Paul Lacoursière, who teaches chemical engineering at Université de Sherbrooke. “Now that we’re seeing a dramatic rise in the transportation of oil by train, let’s actually get serious about investigating this issue.”

He says, while hundreds of trains carrying hazardous materials pass through urban centres every day, there’s no legislation that forces them to alert those municipalities. Some railroad companies, like Canadian Pacific, advise cities of exactly what’s going to be passing through town on one of the company’s trains. But not all companies feel the need to spend extra time and money on a practice that’s in no way mandatory.

The reasoning behind not forcing rail operators to divulge what they’re hauling is that it reduces the risk of sabotage or terrorist attacks, according to Louise Bradette, department head at Montreal’s Centre de sécurité civile.

“There’s also the question of railroad inspections,” Lacoursière said. “What Lac-Mégantic brought to light is the fact that shipments of crude oil were allowed to roll on tracks that were flimsy and in disrepair. We authorized that.”

While Transport Canada hasn’t reduced the number of federal train inspectors since the Conservative government came to power in 2006, the department hasn’t hired new staff, either — despite a dramatic increase in rail traffic. It’s one of the issues the government has promised to look into in the aftermath of Lac-Mégantic, but Lacoursière says one of the most worrisome issues is the chemical composition of crude itself.

jmagder@montrealgazette.com
Twitter: OffIslandNews

mbeaudin@montrealgazette.com
With files from Christopher Curtis.

One comment

  1. By Nora Hague

    If you buy a house beside a railway track, you must expect noise and vibration. The problem is caused by mis-use of zoning regulations. Don’t permit residential housing to be built beside the tracks. Zone it as industrial. That’s what zoning regulations are supposed to be for. The same principle applies to zoning around airports; don’t build or buy houses beside the airport as you will have noise and vibration.

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