Monday, November 25, 2013

Danger at Quayside

My family and I live in a condo in Quayside, so we are quite familiar with the rail yard.  In fact, we are practically right on top of it (the price you pay for an affordable family condo in Metro Vancouver).  The noise bugged us for the first week, but we quickly adapted.  Surprisingly, it didn’t bother our children in the least.  

Of more concern than noise and on a lot of peoples’ minds after Lac-Megantik is trains carrying dangerous goods.  

I can’t remember where I saw it (meeting minutes, a sign somewhere or something of that ilk), but something said to people living in Quayside “the dangerous goods are all heavier than air, so just stay in your home and you will be fine.”   At first I wasn't sure if it was serious or I was being mocked.  It was serious.  

While refined petroleum products may be heavier than air, the pressure wave created when they explode is not and will cause a lot of grief for anyone in its way.  Many of them vapourize readily and those vapours are lighter than air.  Being heavier than air doesn’t help all those people in low-rises.  And even if people could avoid the unpleasantness by staying in their homes, you’re still stuck in your home for an unknown amount of time, an island in a sea of chemicals.  

In response to municipal calls, Transportation Minister Lisa Riatt has issued a protective direction.  All railway companies must now report dangerous goods movements through municipalities every quarter (Class 1 railroads) or year (everyone else).   Apparently this will formalize some things that have been happening on an ad hoc basis already, and will be in place for three years while Transport Canada develops regulations on the issue.  

Municipalities, including New West, have been pushing railroads for information on dangerous goods shipments for some time.  Fire Chief Tim Armstrong’s "primary frustration, he says, is that rail companies are not obliged to provide his department with specific details of the materials hauled by their trains, or provide the times that any hazardous shipments might roll through town, unless he requests the information.”

So as nice as it is, this directive will not provide what Chief Armstrong is requesting.   Historical reports are good for watching trends and developing overall strategies, but don’t help in the day to day operation of a city.  Chief Armstrong is clearly looking for that day to day information, so I asked Councillor Jonathan X. Cote what this means to him.  How would the fire department operate differently if it had the information Chief Armstrong is requesting?  

Chief Armstrong’s response, through Councillor Cote, was that the NWFD has a good working relationship with the railways, Southern Railway (SRY) in particular, the Fire Department is continuing to train on HAZMAT response tailored to the mix of dangerous goods that tend to flow through New West, and that they get good information and quick responses from SRY.   He agreed that the directive doesn’t help much for being proactive, and that New West is ahead of that curve by using its relationships with the railways.  

Looking at the Public Safety section of the city website, I don’t see anything on rail safety.  A general search yields links to general sections and a few hits on some overpasses.  Digging a bit deeper found a report with the October 7th, 2013 Committee of the Whole agenda (starting on page 291) discussing this issue.    

The report is mostly trying to sell council on developing a stronger HAZMAT team within the New West Fire Department.  Currently the NWFD is only trained to identify and secure a HAZMAT issue, and is not trained or equipped to deal with it further.  We have deals with Burnaby and Coquitlam who are more trained and equipped to actually clear a HAZMAT incident.  Additionally, the report touches on preliminary work developing an evacuation plan for the Quayside area via the Fraser River.  Meeting minutes noted that dangerous goods travel a 5 mph or less, and the Federal Government is working on an apparent void in the railways’ emergency response plans.  

That’s all good and well.  There are arguments either way for training up a HAZMAT team in New West, I won’t go into that here.  Having an evacuation plan is prudent.  What concerns me more is this report, and everything else I’ve seen except the 5 mph limit, looks strictly at post-disaster response.  When the HAZMAT team shows up or the evacuation siren sounds, it’s already too late.  

The better question is how do busy railways and dense populations co-exist safely.  Information on dangerous goods is part of that, but what else must be done?  In New West particularly, how do we protect the Quayside development, Downtown, and Sapperton areas from potential disasters?  How would a potential covering of the railway affect this?  

I asked CN, CP and Southern Railways to identify what type of hazard assessments they have done around their rail yards in general, and the New Westminster yard specifically (google oddity: when googling Canadian Pacific Railway or CP rail, does not show up on the first page. is the first link that appears when searching for CN rail).  I've had no response yet, but it's only been a few days.  

I searched the city website for similar and found nothing substantial.  I found a few minutes from the Emergency Preparedness Committee, but nothing of consequence there either.   While it’s clear some issues are being addressed on a piecemeal basis.  Who is taking an overall look at the city to say “what are the potential hazards we face, and how do we prevent them from occurring?”

At this point the questions start getting interesting.  In all the industries I have worked in, a potential hazard that could result in the death of a person is rated as high severity and something must be done to prevent it.  Were we able to absolutely unequivocally mitigate every potential hazard of death or serious injury?  No, but we tried pretty damn hard to get there.  

Can you take that approach at a municipal level?  We certainly are not at the moment.  If we were, motor vehicle accidents, falls, and suicides should be getting a lot more investigation.  In fairness these issues aren’t emergencies in the same way things like a railway accident or a flood are.  They require different tools and techniques to manage, and one can’t be focused on to neglect the other.  

(google found  a few things, including contact details for the Suicide Prevention and Follow-up Program – you would think at least that would come up on a city site search)

I submitted an application to serve on the Emergency Preparedness Committee.  If I get the chance I will use the opportunity to push the city for more proactive analysis and mitigation of hazards.  We will see if anything comes of that, or my request for the hazard assessments from the railways.  

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