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Feature: B.C. Ministry of Environment database details hazardous materials spills in Revelstoke area
The B.C. Ministry of Environment has released a database of hazardous materials spills in B.C., highlighting where, when and how much hazardous materials are being spilt on land, water and air.
The Times Review requested the database from the Ministry of Environment; ministry staffers indicated an identical freedom of information request was nearing completion. That database was released on Aug. 15. It covered a period from July, 2010 to December, 2012.
When information from the Revelstoke region is analyzed, the database highlights hazardous spill patterns in the region.
Although pipelines and railways have been the focus of oil spill concerns, highway MVIs involving transport trucks on the Trans-Canada Highway are a significant source of small but not insignificant spills, where hundreds of litres of diesel escape from fuel tanks, some of it spilling into creeks that drain into local rivers.
In total, about three dozen MVIs involving hazardous materials releases were recorded. Of these three-dozen spills, the volume of diesel spilled is commonly in the 400-litre range. One highway MVI involved 1,100 litres of paint. Most memorably, a tanker wiped out on the Trans-Canada Highway in Revelstoke, flooding a resident’s lawn with a load of dried pig’s blood.
Also notable in the highway diesel spills and all spills in general is the amount of incidents where the volume of material spilled is listed as “unknown.”
The Times Review requested the information as part of our ongoing series on rail safety in the region. Currently, rail carriers don’t have an obligation to report incidents publicly. Although Canadian rail carriers are required to report to the Transportation Safety Board (TSB), the results are not reported out publicly in a timely fashion. A TSB representative told the Times Review they maintain a public database of incidents under investigation, but the smaller incidents not investigated by the TSB are filed for internal purposes only.
Currently, the Times Review relies on shortwave radio monitoring or news tips to find out about unfolding railway derailments and spills – which is not a robust system that will catch all incidents.
We wondered: are there a significant number of derailments and spills that go under the radar because they happen in remote areas or after hours?
It appears not, but there were some concerning close calls. It should be noted the database includes rail leaks, derailments with leaks, but not derailments with no leaks.
A total of five leaks related to rail travel are detailed in the ‘Revelstoke’ area.
Three were leaks only, while two were derailments with leaks.
Most concerning was a June 23, 2011 derailment at Albert Canyon with a reported leak of caustic soda into the Illecillewaet River. The Times Review attended the scene and photographed the site; one derailed and damaged tanker car was resting at a severe angle on the sloping bank of the Illecillewaet River.
British Columbians will recall the Aug. 5, 2005 CN Rail derailment that spilled half a tanker car’s worth of caustic soda into the Cheakamus River, devastating aquatic life on that river’s ecosystem, and killing more than half a million fish. The river’s ecosystem is expected to take many decades to recover.
The spill resulted in an order from the federal transport minister ordering CN Rail to limit the number of cars on trains travelling the stretch from Squamish, B.C. to Clinton, B.C.
At the time of the June 23 spill in Albert Canyon, Ministry of Environment and CP Rail officials told the Times Review that no environmental damage had been done.
Last week, environment ministry officials clarified, saying that two tanker cars that last contained caustic soda did derail in the 17-car derailment, and that they were both damaged, but did not leak because they were empty at the time.
CP Rail spokesperson Kevin Hrysak emphasized the railway followed all existing regulations after the incident and reported all required information to the Transportation Safety Board and the B.C. Ministry of Environment. “At no point were loaded caustic soda tank cars involved or breached resulting in a release of product into the river,” Hrysak said. He added the tanker cars “last contained” caustic soda.
The other CP Rail derailment and spill involved a small amount of sodium chlorate onto land. The substance is also toxic.
A sixth railway incident occurred on September 14, 2010, closer to Golden, B.C. when “human error” led to a terrestrial spill of about 5,000 litres of diesel.
There were no reported rail spills involving oil transport during that time period
Concurrently, on Aug. 22, a federal senate energy committee investigating the transport of oil in Canada released a report containing a list of recommendations for tanker, rail and pipeline transport.
A general recommendation from the senate committee calls for the creation of a web portal containing interactive maps that would detail information on oil spills for all modes of oil transport. The portal would list the type of material released and the cause of the incident – as soon as possible.
BC Hydro reported a range of incidents at Revelstoke Dam and Mica Dam over the period – although the rate of incidents may reflect the ongoing major expansion projects at the dam. Their reporting system also appears to be robust; one report detailed just one litre of oil spilled after a piece of equipment failed.
The Ministry of Environment listed a July 30 spill of 1,500 litres of high PH liquid at the Mica Dam into the Columbia River system as “intentional.”
BC Hydro spokesperson Mary Coules detailed the incident. She said, during construction, water from a temporary penstock flooded an area where concrete was being cured by a contractor. It mixed with the concrete then flooded into a sump. Coules said the area was dammed off with sandbags and then transported to a batch plant where it was treated in a settling pond.
In an Aug. 15 spill at the Revelstoke Dam, about 315 litres of hydraulic lubricating oil leaked into a turbine pit after an O-ring failed. Coules said staff took immediate preventative measures, such as running the affected water through an oil/water separator and placing oil-absorbent booms into the drainage sump.
Coules said BC Hydro adhered to standard spill response and reporting procedures. “BC Hydro’s policy is to comply with all federal and provincial environmental legislation including mandatory spill reporting required by the BC Spill Reporting Regulation and the federal Fisheries Act,” she said. “In addition, it is also policy to report all spills and ‘close calls’ internally.”
The City of Revelstoke has had a few incidents. By volume, a failure at the pumping station in Arrow Heights on October 18, 2011 is the biggest. About 1.7 million litres of chlorinated water – treated drinking water – was spilled when the pumping station malfunctioned.
A total of 78 hazardous materials spills were listed in the Revelstoke area during the reporting period.
The list of spill incidents provided by the Ministry of Environment does not include the names of those who caused the spill; spills on the railway and at the dams can be deduced by their location.
Conspicuously absent from the database are incidents not involving authorities with procedures and a culture of reporting spills. There are self-reported incidents involving Parks Canada, BC Hydro, the City of Revelstoke and CP Rail. Highway MVIs that draw a response from police and environment officials are also represented, but incidents that involved self-reporting by other private entities are scarce.
In general, the database highlights that, in the transportation sector, significant spills involving transport trucks are a fairly common and regular occurrence. Although one or two rail spills in the Revelstoke region have flown under the public’s radar in the roughly two-and-a-half-year period, the exploration didn’t turn up a significant pattern of frequent hazardous materials spills in rail transportation.
The Standing Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources report entitled ‘A study of Safe Transport of Hydrocarbons by Pipelines, Tankers and Railcars in Canada notes that oil transport by rail car has proliferated dramatically in the past few years.
In 2009, CN and CP transported about 500 carloads of crude oil in Canada in the U.S. By 2013, that number has skyrocketed to an estimated 140,000 carloads.
Embedded here is a PDF of the incident reports, listed alphabetically by the name of the community nearest to the incident. See this link for the Government of B.C. Open Information webpage where the original spreadsheet document is hosted.