By Claire Hume, Pacific Wild Intern
In response to growing opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, alternative methods of transporting bitumen from Alberta to Kitimat, British Columbia are being explored. One such option is rail, with proponents saying use of the existing CN infrastructure is a safer and less environmentally invasive solution. Compared to the devastation that would be caused by major pipeline accidents, the use of trains to move oil seems like a less threatening choice. But is it really?
NathanVanderklippe recently reported in The Globe and Mail, that even Canada’s national railway companies admit to having more accidents than pipelines. As well they should. It turns out that, in comparison to pipelines, trains moving liquids in North America are three times more likely to be involved in an incident leading to loss of human life – and nine times more likely to cause a fire or explosion. Those frightening statistics are compiled not by worried environmentalists, but by the U.S. State Department.
In 2005 a faulty rail caused a CN train to derail at Lake Wabamun, a popular lake 65 kilometers west of Edmonton. The crash spilled a million litres of bunker oil, 700,000 of which ended up in the lake. It took more than two years to clean up Lake Wabamun after the CN derailment, and the fish in this once great angling lake are still unsafe to eat.
Between Prince George and Prince Rupert the CN Rail Line crosses hundreds of watersheds, including the Fraser and Skeena Rivers – Canada’s two most important salmon rivers. West of Hazelton, B.C. the railway parallels the Skeena, any derailment in this region could be devastating for the future of Canadian salmon.
CN train derailments are, unfortunately, not uncommon events. In fact, in the first week of 2013 two trains flew off the tracks in separate incidents. The first, occurring January 3rd, involved three train cars sliding off an overpass onto the Sea to Sky highway below. A mere three days later, a CN train in Illinois failed to stop when it reached the end of the track, crumpled into a heap, and rolled down a steep embankment. And, on January 23, a train carrying crude oil in Paynton Saskatoon collided with a road grader resulting in the derailment of the engine and sixteen cars, as well as the death of one person. At the moment it is unclear how much oil has been spilt but each tanker has the capacity to hold up to 650 barrels. In response to the collision, CN has temporarily closed its north line and is sending vacuum trucks to try and contain the oil leak.
Faulty equipment, operator fatigue, cell phone, and marijuana use have all been listed as official causes of train derailment by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. If a train can be derailed and sent flying into a lake by as little as a breached beaver dam, as occurred in Nakina Ontario in 1992, I can’t imagine how anyone would thinking running bitumen filled trains along the country’s most important salmon rivers is a realistic solution to the pipeline problem.
People and organizations who are opposed to the Northern Gateway project, of course, are concerned with more than just how industry proposes to move Alberta oil across B.C. to coastal ports. Regardless of whether the bitumen is transported in a new pipeline system or by enormous chains of clanking rail cars, at the end of the line it is still destined to be loaded into super tankers for export off shore. The use of tankers along B.C.’s coast threatens the health and survival of one of the world’s most spectacular shorelines. Navigating the waters of Western Canada in an oil tanker poses a challenging task and any type of spill could inflict devastating damage on the region. There is also growing concern over the impact of engine noise on marine animals, such as whales who rely on echolocation to communicate, travel safely around obstacles, and find food. A drastic increase in marine noise levels could drive animals away from the region, their critical habitat, or injure and kill the ones left behind.
For Pacific Wild, the ‘No Tankers’ stance remains consistent. Regardless of whether the oil is moved by pipes or rail, the end result still involves tankers that would put the Great Bear Rainforest at great risk.