Recent rail incidents heighten Chilliwack concern

Chilliwack residents growing concerned with rail safety, but city says it's prepared if a disaster were to occur

Every day in Chilliwack

Every day in Chilliwack

Recent rail derailments in Canada and the U.S. have sparked fear among some Chilliwack residents living near railroad tracks.

One homeowner, who did not want her name used in this story, has lived on Darlene Avenue, just off Broadway, for 11 years, with her backyard a stone’s throw from the tracks; nothing but a row of hedges separates the two. Yet despite hearing – and feeling – the trains at all hours, they’ve never bothered her or her husband.

Until now.

“We weren’t worried about them before, but now we’ve started thinking, ‘what if?’” she said.

“All we have are those trees … if a train derails, we’re screwed. All of us. If they’re going fast, nothing’s really going to stop it, is it?”

On Jan. 11, a Canadian Pacific train derailed in Burnaby with three of the 152 cars tipping over and spilling their loads of coal. On Jan. 7, 150 people had to be evacuated from their homes in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick after 19 cars, including five tankers carrying crude oil, to a refinery in Saint John, derailed and caught fire. Last July, a freight train pulling tank cars filled with crude oil in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec caused a deadly disaster that Wendy Tadros, chair of the the Safety Transportation Board of Canada, said “may very well be the most devastating rail accident in Canadian history.”

Forty-seven people died, and millions of litres of oil spilled.

In Chilliwack, approximately 40 trains a day with about 150 cars or so each, rumble through the city, carrying anything from grains, to vehicles, to hazardous materials.

According to the Railway Association of Canada, dangerous goods make up 12 per cent of all rail traffic moved in Canada.

However, that’s likely to increase with recent ramped up efforts to ship more oil by rail while producers wait for new pipelines to come on stream.

New oil loading rail facilities in Alberta will soon be moving 890,000 barrels per day – roughly equivalent to the twinned Kinder Morgan pipeline, when it’s built, or the stalled Keystone pipeline.

In 2012, Canadian crude oil was shipped at a rate of 24,000 bpd. That has since grown to 175,000 bpd.

Pamela Cameron, who runs a dog grooming business out of her home on Hazel Street, isn’t so much concerned with the materials passing by her home, as she is by the speed at which the trains travel.

“They come flying through here, really flying, way above the speed level they’re supposed to,” said Cameron who purchased the house, located directly across from a playground, eight years ago.

“I don’t know if it’s the devil you know or the one you don’t know. I don’t want the pipelines to go through, but I also don’t want oil in my backyard either.

“They need to slow down. It’s definitely a safety issue.”

The designated track speed in the greater Chilliwack area is 105 kph, and slows down to 80 kph at the Young Road crossing.

Lana Sterling, with her three children between the ages of 10 and 17, lives in a rented home on McIntosh Drive that backs onto the tracks. Rail safety is always a concern, she said.

“It always sits at the back of your mind.”

When contacted by The Progress, CN wouldn’t speculate on the safety of residents living near Chilliwack’s tracks if a train was to derail.

CN also wouldn’t specify the types of dangerous goods it moves through the city, “due to security concerns.” CN does, however, provide the city’s mayor, fire chief, chief administrative officer, and other such designated persons responsible for emergency planning and preparedness with an annual list of dangerous goods (types and volume) that have been transported in a 12-month period.

“In the past 10 years, CN’s main-line track accidents have declined by more than 50 per cent despite increased freight volumes,” said Emily Hamer, CN regional manager, in an emailed statement to The Progress.

“A full 99.998 per cent of CN rail movements of dangerous goods, many of which are essential to the Northern American economy and communities across the continent and include crude oil, arrive at their destination without a release caused by an accident.”

Still, Mayor Sharon Gaetz understands her community’s concern.

“Recent train derailments, including the incident in Burnaby last week, have brought rail safety to the forefront of many people’s minds,” she acknowledged. “Our primary concern remains the safety of our residents and the City of Chilliwack takes that very seriously … with plans and protocols in place to deal with a wide variety of incidents that could possibly occur.”

Jim MacDonald, Chilliwack’s emergency planning coordinator, said the city is as prepared as it can be for a rail disaster.

All of the fire department’s members, career and on-call, are trained in one level or another of hazardous material awareness and operation incidents. They’re trained in how to proceed upon disaster, not to rush in, but to investigate from a distance first. Each truck is equipped with binoculars and a book filled with descriptions and protocols for dealing with the various hazardous materials.

The department also has two trained hazmat technicians on staff, and two department members, one being MacDonald, who have been trained by the rail companies’ top tank car specialists in Colorado.

The training, which uses live trains that have been tipped, and are on fire, and leaking dangerous chemicals, is paid for by the rail companies, and is extended to fire departments across North America.

“We’d love to train everybody [in the Chilliwack department], but it’s really expensive and is just totally outside any [organization’s] budget,” MacDonald said.

The fire department’s members also partake in local disaster training exercises, organized by the rail companies, every couple years.

“These transportation companies want us to be as well trained as we can be, because by the time they show up they don’t want to be walking into a horse show,” said MacDonald. “We’re the guys who show up first and they want to make sure we’re getting it right from the start.”

Chilliwack’s fire department is also developing a yearly, back-to-basics, “hazmat street smarts” training for its members.

“Are we ready for it? We’re as ready as we can be,” said MacDonald.