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Lessons from Canada's Summer of Sorrow

Alberta's floods and the tragic rail disaster in Quebec have lead to arguments for more stringent development controls in vulnerable areas and greater municipal control over railroads, as well as a more rapid transition away from oil.
Michael Dudley | July 16, 2013, 11am PDT
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Canadians will surely remember the summer of 2013 as one of the darkest in memory, with a series of disasters across the country that made headlines around the world. On June 20th, unprecedented rainfall turned the once greenish-blue rivers flowing from the Rockies into swollen muddy torrents that tore away the landscape, homes and roads around Canmore before inundating High River and the low-lying areas of Calgary. Four deaths were blamed on the floods, and the costs to the Alberta economy may reach as high as $5 billion, seriously undermining the tenability of the province’s existing budget.

A week later, the oil industry capital narrowly averted a second disaster when, on June 27th, a CPR train loaded with petrochemicals derailed on an aging bridge that had been undermined by the raging Bow. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi -- who would achieve folk hero status for his indefatigable handling of the crisis -- criticized both the Canadian Pacific Railway and the fact that municipalities have no control over the federally-regulated railways. Luckily, the rail cars were drained and removed, saving the Bow from potentially massive contamination -- or worse, the city from a deadly explosion.

Tragically, Lac Megantic, Quebec would not be so fortunate. In the early hours of July 6, under circumstances that as yet remain unexplained, an unsupervised and out-of-control freight train pulling 72 cars -- filled with toxic fracked oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota and bound for a refinery in New Brunswick -- careened into the historic community and derailed. The subsequent inferno and explosions incinerated the downtown area and left as many as 50 people dead while dumping 100,000 litres of oil into the Chaudière River and the town's namesake Iake.

As the horrifying details of the disaster emerged, Canadians were also astonished to learn that, in the absence of east-west pipelines, oil shipments by rail had increased a barely-fathomable 28,000 percent since 2009, exposing communities across the country to the same risk. As Sophie Cousineau wrote in the Globe & Mail,

All across Canada, there are towns like Lac-Mégantic that have been built around railways used to transport passengers and wood products. But as many passenger trains have been cancelled, these rail tracks have become chemical hazard highways, often unknown to the cities they go through.

For years, there have been fears that just such a calamity was inevitable. Not only have local governments in Canada had zero control historically over the operations of railways in their communities, but since amendments to the Railway Safety Act in 1999, railway companies have been responsible for regulating themselves, with Transport Canada essentially abandoning its oversight role -- a problem some believe has been exacerbated by Harper government cutbacks to railway inspections. Back in 2007, Emile Therien of the Canada Safety Council told CTV news that the hazards associated with deregulated shipments would likely result in a disaster requiring a "major evacuation of a major urban area ... and all the attendant cost that goes along with that." As recently as January of this year, the North Dakota Sierra Club was warning that the enormous increase in oil crossing the country from that state was “an accident waiting to happen.”

Not that it wasn’t already a worrisome year: collisions and derailments had already seen many tens of thousands of litres of petroleum products spilled from Canadian trains near Paynton Saskatchewan, in Minnesota, near White River Ontario, and Jansen Saskatchewan, to say nothing of the near-disaster in Calgary. 

Predictably, the disaster in Lac Megantic immediately entered the discourse over pipeline politics, with many Keystone XL supporters arguing that the tragedy was a clear indication that pipelines should be approved and built with all haste. True, as supporters argued, pipelines would carry oil and other products away from urban centres resulting in much greater safety. Yet this very remoteness combined with their enormous capacities mean that when spills occur, they are far greater than would result from a derailed train – as we learned the week of the Alberta floods when 600,000 litres of contaminated wastewater gushed from a Northern Alberta pipeline. Further, massive investments in new pipelines will represent a path dependence that will weaken economic logic to fund alternatives.  

To learn from the tragedy in Lac Megantic, we need to ask ourselves much harder questions – not about how to transport energy, but about our overreliance on it. As Steven Guilbeault of the Montreal-based eco-social organization Equiterre argues,

Pipeline proponents are offering us a false choice. We don’t need to build more infrastructure to ship dangerous crude oil across the continent....The more we continue to depend on oil, the more catastrophes like Lac-Mégantic are waiting to happen.

Energy and environment economist Andrew Leach goes further. Writing in Maclean’s, he predicts that the Lac Megantic disaster could be a tipping point against the oil industry: not only will the event make the public extremely aware of the dangers in transporting oil by whatever means, it will lead to an increased call on the part of the public for alternatives to oil.

A tipping point of another kind may have resulted from the deluge in Alberta. Many groups, from environmentalists to bureaucrats to disaster risk management experts and insurers have recognized that the storms were entirely consistent with climate change models, and that the June floods were a sign that Canadian cities are going to need to do a much better job of preparing for a wetter, more turbulent and extreme future. As well, development in particularly vulnerable areas is now appearing to be increasingly unsupportable, both by governments and the insurance industries. Already the Alberta Provincial government has indicated that, while homeowners may be allowed to rebuild on floodplains, but they won't receive disaster relief should a flood damage their house in the future.  

These tragedies -- combined with the freak flooding that struck Toronto on July 8th -- highlight the need for renewed commitment on the part of governments and planners to both adapt to climate change and reduce our dependence on oil. Given that so many Canadian communities are situated on or near bodies of water and railroads – or both – they are threatened by unpredictable flooding and the hazards of an aging, poorly-regulated and increasingly overwhelmed energy transportation infrastructure over which they have no authority or control.  

These rapidly-increasing and converging vulnerabilities compel us to continue exploring ways in which planning can contribute to minimizing these risks -- through a comprehensive regime of disaster preparedness, climate change adaptation, reformed urban governance and by planning and promoting walkable, mixed use, low-carbon environments.

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