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Hiding the bomb

TORONTO, Ont. - On the morning of August 8, 2008, just before 4 a. m., a series of furious explosions leveled the Sunrise Propane and Industrial Gases facility on Murray Road in northwest Toronto. It ...




TORONTO, Ont. –On the morning of August 8, 2008, just before 4 a. m., a series of furious explosions leveled the Sunrise Propane and Industrial Gases facility on Murray Road in northwest Toronto. It blew out windows and ravaged homes and buildings in the Keele and Wilson area.

The biggest blast shook my house and the concussion opened the screen door -and I live nine kilometres away.

Emergency personnel didn’t know how much propane was still stored on the premises. As a result, the OPP responded by closing the 401 between Hwy. 400 and the Don Valley Parkway. In total, 12,000 people were evacuated.

Because it happened on a Sunday and so early, only one part-time worker died at the scene. Using DNA samples, it took police four weeks to identify the remains of Parminder Singh Saini, a 25-year-old international student from India. As well, Toronto firefighter Bob Leek died while responding to the call.

What’s disturbing is that a truck-to-truck transfer was reportedly going on at the time, and this could have been a contributing factor to the disaster. This procedure is banned in Ontario but allowed in the other provinces. Apparently, this type of activity was commonplace at this facility.

Generally speaking, truck-to-truck transfers might be considered riskier because more couplings are involved and safety procedures could be more easily bypassed than when filling at a storage tank.

But even Transport Canada believes that this procedure can be conducted safely if done properly.

“Grounding or bonding is one important element of safe truck-to- truck transfers for propane,” according to Tranport Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette.

Whether the trucks were grounded or not, something clearly went wrong that Sunday morning. According to media reports, employee Felipe De Leon noticed smoke and ran for his life, after also warning his co-worker Saini to flee. In all likelihood the “smoke” De Leon was seeing was propane vapour condensing in the early morning air.

“All it takes is a small hole,” says Olev Trass, professor emeritus in chemical engineering at the University of Toronto. “The vapour seeks the spark.”

Trass speculates that a leak must have occurred somewhere during the transfer and that the gas would have clung close to the ground (because propane is heavier than air). The vapour and air would have created an explosive mixture that could have been ignited by static electricity.

“My presumption is that one explosion occurred and put pressure on a tank, enough to break a weld or connection and then four or five explosions occurred, probably in rapid succession,” says Trass.

Indeed, this appears to be what happened. Check out the YouTube videos of the event. A series of smaller explosions are followed by a huge blast and fireball over about a 20-minute period.

But frightening as this disaster was, it was an extremely rare occurrence. The cylindrical propane tanks on trailers or B-trains are spec’d to withstand outrageous tolerances. The pressure relief valve will vent long before a tank would blow, as has been attested in many highway mishaps over decades.

John (Scotty) Patterson, driver-trainer for Liquid Cargo Lines in Mississauga, Ont. takes a diligent approach to safety through training.

“We teach people here how to run a tanker. If they leave the back of a tank they’re responsible for anything that happens. You see something you don’t like, you shut it down and wait for them to come to you.”

Liquid Cargo Lines hauls a variety of products and some dangerous goods, most of it in straight-through shotgun tankers (this makes them easier to clean when they have to be purged between loads).

The lack of baffles makes the cargo especially tricky to handle.

“Forty-five thousand pounds will knock you forward so damn hard and then slap back against the rear of the tank so you almost stall out if you’re going up a hill,” says Patterson.

Patterson picks excellent drivers to start. They are then put through an intensive training program that includes a minimum of two weeks one-on-one instruction, classroom seminars, and specialized product orientation at the customer’s site. “We’re pretty particular about the people we hire.”

Since everything moves by truck at one time or another, that also includes the nasty stuff. That’s the stuff most people don’t want to know about: acids and chemicals; explosives, noxious liquids and gases; contaminated oils and waste waters; radioactive byproducts and pesticides.

Bulk dangerous goods loads can be molten or frozen, burn your hide raw, freeze you solid, or lay you out cold from just one whiff. Transport Canada estimates there are 30 million shipments of dangerous goods every year, and that 45% of that tonnage is carried by truck.

On the whole, HazMat drivers are very well trained and practices are extremely safe. Unless something goes wrong -a coupler or a joint pipe leaks, or a driver unwittingly unloads a tanker of the wrong fluid into the wrong intake pipe, or a collision causes a rupture or spill.

My friend Bill Weatherstone, now retired, recalls delivering acid to a plant in Montreal. The acid had been heated to 300 degrees, but the unloader at the site used a plastic fitting to connect to the hose, which soon melted.

Hot acid began gushing and spraying out of the trailer and a river of it was running under the tanker, acid fumes filled the yard. Quick-thinking Bill couldn’t get at the shut-off tap at the front of the trailer. With acid spraying from the back of the tank, he jumped over a retaining wall and was able to hit a valve and release the hydraulic pressure stopping the flow (you can read this story and others on his Web site: www.thedieselgypsy.com).

Another friend of mine (who prefers to remain anonymous), let’s call him Igor, has been specializing in hauling cryogenic products for years. These are compressed gases like hydrogen and helium, whose liquid temperatures sit just above absolute zero (about -250 degrees C).

Needless to say, handling gases like argon, oxygen and carbon dioxide requires special procedures. For instance, acetylene cylinders have to be loaded underwater. And if you’re delivering hydrogen, the line has to be purged of oxygen or an explosion could result. Hydrogen reacts with oxygen and is the preferred fuel for NASA’s rockets.

More than once, Igor has been woken up in his hotel room after someone complained that his truck was venting (this occurs normally with the truck shut off).

Some motel owners are reluctant to allow “socially unacceptable” loads into their parking lots, but others are happy for the business. Igor calls this “hiding the bomb” and knows a few motels in Eastern Canada that have a spot for him to park out back. His company has gotten rid of sleeper cabs and adheres strictly to hours-of- service regs, making motel stays a regular part of the job.

Overall, trucking dangerous goods is not only safe, but rewarding. Most companies pay a premium for the work and those working with industrial gases are paid even better. It’s also an industry that seems to be recession-proof. Refineries never shut down, and as manufacturing processes get more efficient and sophisticated, the need for industrial chemicals and gases keeps increasing.

No doubt, the Downsview explosion will probably lead to better enforcement and perhaps regulatory changes. The great Mississauga train derailment of 1979, involving propane and chlorine tankers, caused the evacuation of 218,000 people. Shortly afterwards, the federal government got serious about the transportation of dangerous goods and introduced a placarding and classification system that’s in use today.

One criticism of the HazMat industry might be its inherent secretiveness.With few exceptions, industrial gas suppliers are reluctant to talk about the transportation of their products. As the general manager of a large Canad
ian propane carrier told me, “It’s one of those things you feel like you shouldn’t say a whole lot about.”

And the US Department of Homeland Security doesn’t make it any easier on carriers hauling dangerous goods into the States. Every southbound load has to be logged as to loading and departure times.

“It’s been hard on us since 9/11,” says Patterson. “We have to comply with so many rules and regulations.”

A friend of mine was once complaining about 200 trucks of Toronto’s garbage rolling down the 401 to Michigan every day. So I took him to the overpass on Keele Street and we counted 200 trailers in about six minutes. “You see, 200 more trucks in 24 hours isn’t going to make any difference.”

But the point I should have made is that it’s being done safely 24/7 and we don’t hear about it. And until we figure out a better way to do things, our society needs what’s in those tankers and cylinders. But a little more openness from a transportation sector that should be proud of its safety record might go a long way in reassuring a public that’s still a little shaky after the Downsview blast.

———

“Forty-five thousand pounds will knock you forward so damn hard and then slap back against the rear of the tank so you almost stall out if you’re going up a hill,”

-John ‘Scotty’ Patterson, Liquid Cargo Lines


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