|CN's PR disasters|
CAW & TCRC join major environmental group in questioning CN's safety record
|August 15, 2005
The mess spilling out around the Lake Wabamun derailment is just one of several incidents that Canadian National Railway Co. has
faced in recent months.
On August 3rd, more than 500,000 litres of oil spilled into Lake Wabamun, 65 kilometres west of Edmonton. Initially, CN reported that
one of the spilled cars contained lube oil, but it was discovered upon further investigation to be carrying pole-treatment oil, a carcinogen.
It is estimated that up to 80,000 litres of pole-treating oil were spilled at the site.
The revelation prompted local health officials to upgrade a warning to residents. After initially telling them not to swim or boat in the lake
or drink well water, it subsequently warned against showering, brushing their teeth or even handling animals or birds that were trapped
in the sludge that now coats the banks of the lake. The upgraded warning came five days after the crash, well after many volunteers
starting handling wildlife from the lake.
The Alberta government said it would hold CN responsible to full extent of the law if it were found to be negligent in reporting the contents
of the spill.
On August 5th, two days after the Alberta spill, another CN Rail freight train derailed about 30 kilometres north of Squamish, B.C.,
sending nine cars into the Cheakamus River canyon and causing another toxic spill.
Roughly 40,000 litres of sodium hydroxide, a highly corrosive liquid used in the pulp-and-paper industry, spilled into the river, devastating
the local marine wildlife. Residents reported dead fish covering the banks of the river, and several people also complained that it took
more than 12 hours for officials to notify them about the spill.
The British Columbia Environment Ministry struck a task force Wednesday to develop a recovery plan for the Cheakamus River after the
spill. As in Alberta, B.C.'s Environment Minister Barry Penner said that prosecution may ensue if culpability is determined under
provincial environmental legislation or the Federal Fisheries Act.
Fines for a spill under the Fisheries Act can range up to $1-million, and provincial fines could amount to up to another $1-million.
The province is also working with Environment Canada to investigate the spill, and Transport Canada is conducting its own investigation
into the wreck.
On July 4, two CN trains derailed in Prescott, Ontario. Although no injuries were reported and there was only minor leakage, the incident
could have been considerably worse. The train was reportedly on its way to Montreal and had dropped off fuel at a nearby town just
before the accident. The engine and the first car were the only parts of the 50-car train that remained upright.
Last month, U.S. investigators cited CN's failure to properly maintain and inspect its tracks in a fatal Amtrak crash in Mississippi on April
6, 2004. One person died in the accident, which investigators determined was caused by a misaligned track.
At the time, CN officials said the company “deeply regretted” and would review the safety board findings. CN officials were not available
for comment Thursday.
Two of CN's unions joined a major environmental group Tuesday in questioning the railway's safety record.
The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference and the Canadian Auto Workers Local 100, which represent engineers and shop workers
respectively, have written Transport Minister Jean Lapierre asking him to investigate CN's maintenance, repair and inspection practices.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club of Canada is demanding that Environment Minister Stéphane Dion prosecute the former Crown corporation
for environmental damage caused by toxic materials that spilled in the Alberta and B.C. derailments.
CN defends its safety performance, arguing that despite privatization and job cuts, new monitoring technology has made it the safest
railway in North America.
“The main reason why we felt strongly about this is because we've got two aquatic eco-systems that have basically been destroyed,”
Stephen Hazell, Sierra Club conservation director, said Tuesday from Ottawa. “We haven't heard much from either level of government
about what they plan to do about it, even though we have environmental laws in this country that cover these exact sorts of situations.”
Ottawa should prosecute the railway under the Fisheries Act or the Environmental Protection Act, he said. “We have been concerned for
many years about the growing reluctance of the federal government to prosecute polluters,” Mr. Hazell said. “These two instances are
among the most egregious that I can recall.”
The unions contend that CN's safety record has declined since it was privatized in 1995 and began shedding staff even as it expanded
operations by taking over U.S.-based Illinois Central Railroad in 1998, as well as Crown-owned B.C. Rail in 2003.
“We speculate or believe there are some correlating issues here between the downsizing, the weight increase, the train length increase,
CN moving from a Crown corporation to a private organization and that kind of stuff,” said John Burns, vice-president of CAW Local 100 in
Vancouver. “We're asking the minister in a letter to him to do a comprehensive review of CN practices.”
Bruce Willows, senior vice-chairman of the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, dismissed suggestions that his union was exploiting
the incidents to push for more jobs.
“Railway safety doesn't impact directly on our numbers,” he said. “It impacts directly on our members' lives, their health and safety.
“What we want to do is exclude the possibility that somehow cutbacks have resulted in a reduction with respect to maintenance of track
Source: Scott Deveau/Globe and Mail - with reports from the Canadian Press