A BNSF freight train passes along the waterfront in White Rock Monday morning. (Ankedo Zake photo)

Spectre of Lac-Megantic raised as White Rock council calls for report on rail emergency protocol

‘I just really think we’re asleep at the switch here,’ says councillor

White Rock council has asked staff for a full report on emergency systems, for both response and public communication, in the event of a catastrophe in the city, such as a major train derailment along the BNSF’s waterfront line.

The unanimously supported motion was made by Coun. David Chesney, reacting to an emergency operations orientation presentation by Fire Chief Phil Lemire before council on April 15.

Chesney suggested that while protocols currently in place may be effective in daylight hours, it would be difficult to properly inform the public of dangers if, for example, “a chlorine train derailed at 3 a.m.”

“I just really think we’re asleep at the switch here,” he said.

Chesney held up the 2013 Lac-Megantic, Que. disaster – in which derailment of a freight train caused a fire and explosion of tank cars that claimed 47 lives and destroyed 30 town centre buildings – as “a perfect example.”

“They thought they were safe as hell, and we know what happened there,” he said.

“God forbid that would ever happen here, but we have a perfect storm (situation) between here and Crescent Beach, with those unstable hillsides; train tracks at the bottom, rip-rap on the shore side, which is exactly where that train’s going to go when it’s knocked off; rail cars filled with everything from jet fuel to the Bakken oil we saw in Quebec, chlorine gas to whatever else nasty stuff (is being transported).

“It rolls over and hits those rocks and we’re all in big trouble.”

READ MORE: Semiahmoo Peninsula rail relocation much easier said than done

READ MORE: Waterfront rail safety concerns brought to new Surrey council

Lemire’s presentation to council provided an overview of current emergency management procedures in the city, including a continuing cycle of four “pillars” – preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation and prevention.

But Chesney, while underlining that he meant to provide constructive criticism rather than knock existing efforts, said, “I really believe we need to have something in place in our community.”

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near prepared. All of these things we’re seeing today are wonderful, but it’s that overnight (situation), with that railway running by here with dangerous goods…

“We just had another slide last week in the middle of the night, that could have knocked that train onto that rip-rap, and folks, when that happens, hell will have no fury like we’ll see unleashed into our community. We won’t have time, we simply won’t have time.”

Chief administrative officer Dan Bottrill urged council to maintain the focus on campaigning for rail relocation off the waterfront, for which the city has budgeted some $75,000 this year.

“We could have a horrendous amount of training, education and awareness, but, at the end of the day, I think our council and our community have spoken about rail relocation – it’s one of those things that we’re still working our way through,” he said.

“Can we please make sure that we have the funding in place so that ourselves, Surrey, the province and our federal government can work together in order to move forward with rail relocation?

“It’s just as important today as it was when it was first envisioned a few years ago. It’s something that we really want to work towards.”

Bottrill noted that Lemire had a recent training session with BNSF, as part of ongoing emergency preparedness measures, which also include regular consultation with Whatcom County officials – as Lemire earlier pointed out, a major incident would not respect city or international boundaries.

“But it doesn’t really help,” Bottrill said, “when the significance of the disaster is such that, no matter how much training, there’s a real risk here.”

Deputy mayor Scott Kristjanson, who chaired the meeting, said he also shared Chesney’s concerns, and wondered what procedures are in place to warn people if a train derailed on White Rock beach – even in full daylight.

“There’s a number of means, whether it be – if you’re in an immediate area – by anything from loud-hailers to who you can use on the beach to spread the word,” Lemire said.

Lemire said, however, that while BNSF does transport “hazardous product that goes through our community on a regular basis,” the company “has systems in place that have been working over the years,” including a slide-triggered trip fence that has been effective in providing early warnings and stopping trains from going through hazardous areas.

But that argument did not satisfy Chesney, who acknowledged that he is “incredibly passionate about this rail line that runs between our communities, having reported on numerous situations.”

“Those electronic trip wires are not maintained with any level of effectiveness at all. There are many slides that have happened along that corridor between here and Crescent Beach that the BNSF had no idea had happened until a train came roaring up to it and had to call and say, ‘Hey, the line’s closed.’”

Lemire said that emergency planning risk assessment must balance incidents that have a “high severity impact” but a low risk of occurrence, against a main focus on “what’s going to have the highest occurrence.”

But Kristjanson commented that the potentially high death rate from certain kinds of incidents must be weighed in the balance, even if they are deemed at a low risk of occurring.



alexbrowne@peacearchnews.com

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