Mayors face security pushback from feds as they seek more info on rail cargo

OTTAWA – A push by municipal leaders to know more about hazardous rail cargo rattling through their communities is raising security concerns in the federal government.

A string of derailments in recent months has the Federation of Canadian Municipalities worried that local fire, ambulance and police departments haven’t done the proper emergency planning or training for some of the situations they’ve faced.

Since the devastating crash in Lac-Megantic, Que., in July that killed 47 people, municipal leaders have been asking Ottawa to provide more information in advance about what’s on the rails so they can prepare for worst-case scenarios.

“Local first responders are the ones on the front line when emergencies happen,” federation president Claude Dauphin said in an interview.

Currently “nobody knows” what might be on derailed train cars when an accident occurs, said Dauphin, who is also mayor of Lachine, Que.

The municipal federation formed a rail safety working group shortly after Lac-Megantic and has been asking Transport Canada for more clarity on the movement of hazardous goods ever since.

However, they have run into resistance from federal officials worried that shared information could fall into the wrong hands and pose a security risk, such as theft or sabotage.

“We also as municipalities, the FCM, we share the concerns of the federal government on the potential security implications of sharing information on dangerous goods,” said Dauphin.

“But at the same time, our local governments are looking for an effective and secure mechanism for sharing basic information on dangerous goods.”

The federation says government officials have been sympathetic to their concerns and that talks are ongoing. A meeting with Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has been promised before the end of September.

“Yes, we agree that it could be very delicate,” Dauphin added. “You never know. That information could go to the wrong hands. It has be kept secure.”

Raitt’s office did not respond to a request for comment, and departmental officials with Transport Canada refused to discuss the nature of their security issues, or even whether there is room for negotiation with the FCM over hazardous cargo.

“Municipalities can ask rail companies for information regarding the types of dangerous goods materials that are being transported,” spokeswoman Karine Martel said in an email.

“In Canada, the transportation of dangerous goods is strictly regulated under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act, 1992.”

Rail carriers are required to share information, such as the rail shipping document, with Transport Canada “immediately following an accident,” Martel added. That information is then shared with emergency responders through the Canadian Transport Emergency Centre.

That process has left some municipal officials unimpressed — most notably Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, whose city witnessed its second serious derailment in just over three months on Sept. 11.

“City staff are risking their lives to deal with these emergencies and we are still unable to get specific information on what is on these trains in order ensure the safety of our residents,” Nenshi warned last week.

“This simply cannot continue.”

Officials with the municipal federation say the group does not want details of individual cargos in advance.

“We’re not talking about specific manifests for every train that rolls through town,” said an FCM official involved in the talks who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on the record.

“That being said, after an emergency takes place, we need to be able to get the key information to respond in an emergency.”

“And we need to have a basic understanding of what general movements would look like so that we can do our planning. Everything is tied back to our planning process.”

Municipal officials in Quebec are also concerned that Ottawa is delaying the release of years worth of rail safety reports on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway, the carrier at the centre of the Lac-Megantic tragedy.

Sherbrooke and Magog officials were told to file a request under the Access to Information Act to get Transport Canada’s safety records on MM&A. Once they did so, they were told there would be an eight-month delay before the documents could be produced due to the high volume of access requests.

Montreal’s La Presse newspaper, which reported the incident, says it received 10 years worth of American reports on MM&A’s safety record from the U.S. government three weeks after asking.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version identified Claude Dauphin as the mayor of Laval.

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