The Lac-Megantic Effect

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When an unmanned 74-car freight train carrying crude oil careened into the small Quebec town of Lac-Megantic July 6, burning much of it to the ground and killing 47 people, it was easy to dismiss it as a rail issue. After all, though transport trucks are often used to carry crude, the conditions normally don’t exist to create a Lac-Megantic-type disaster. Trucks are generally used to carry crude shorter distances and in much smaller volumes than freight trains.

Still, federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has indicated she views the Lac-Megantic tragedy not as a rail issue, but a transportation issue. She has directed the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities to undertake a review of the current Transportation of Dangerous Goods (TDG) regime for “all modes” and to make recommendations on further areas for improvement.

David Bradley, chief executive officer of the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA), says of the hearings scheduled for this month, at least two days will focus on truck transportation.

“It’s not surprising that would be the case,” Bradley said. “The situation is obviously quite different in rail than it is in trucking – particularly as it pertains to crude – but notwithstanding that, we can’t be complacent and I think we need to take a proactive approach.”

To that end, the CTA in December issued a white paper that highlighted the trucking industry’s safety record when transporting dangerous goods. Bradley said the paper was designed to serve as the CTA’s “first word” on the issue.

The white paper painted a picture of an industry with a stellar track record at hauling dangerous goods. An analysis of incidents revealed an incident rate of just 1.64 per 10,000 truck shipments. Most incidents that involved product releases (56%) were minor, releasing less than 500 litres of product and causing no environmental damage. Major incidents accounted for just 6.4% of total incidents, the white paper reported.

Given its impressive safety record, it’s not surprising that not all dangerous goods carriers are welcoming the heightened scrutiny that could be inevitable in the wake of the Lac-Megantic train tragedy. Asked if he was worried there could be a knee-jerk reaction from Ottawa that would affect the trucking industry, John Erik Albrechtsen, operations manager at Winnipeg, Man.-based Paul’s Hauling, said “That would be a safe statement.”

He said trucking is already held to a higher standard than rail, and warned against foisting further restrictions upon an already heavily regulated industry.

“They don’t hold rail to the same standards they hold us to and they’re going to take steps to correct issues on the rail side and I’m concerned they’re going to piggyback those issues onto our industry, which I think is already heavily regulated,” Albrechtsen told Truck News. “I don’t think the safety issues with our sector of the transportation industry are exactly the same as rail’s and they’re not scrutinized to the same degree we are.”

However, Marcel Pouliot, vice-president of safety and industrial services with Trimac, said it’s inevitable that a tragedy such as what occurred in Lac-Megantic would invite increased attention upon all manner of dangerous good transporters.

“Lac-Megantic is a huge tragedy, absolutely, and you can’t use any lesser word than that to describe it,” Pouliot said. “And for the right reasons, it’s bringing scrutiny to the segment. But trucking companies have been scrutinized by regulatory agencies for years and refocusing more scrutiny on dangerous goods is not something our industry should shy away from and if a carrier does shy away from it, they shouldn’t be in this industry.”

But while there’s a widely held belief that dangerous goods carriers may face increased regulation in the wake of Lac-Megantic, nobody seems to know what the changes will look like. Transport Canada already has introduced new requirements for rail carriers of crude oil, particularly related to the types of equipment that can be used to transport crude. Asked if trucking could face similar equipment-related restrictions, the CTA’s Bradley said it’s unlikely.

“It has been explained to me that the trailers used for hauling crude in Canada are of a superior standard, even to what’s used in the US,” Bradley said. “We don’t seem to have the same sorts of issues in terms of equipment as they have on the rail side.”

Bob Kavanagh, co-founder of Tankmart International, told Truck News there’s no need for increased oversight of the tanker trailers used by industry to transport dangerous goods. He said regular inspections and roadside enforcement ensure those trailers are well maintained.

“The regulations that are in place to regulate tank trailers are usually much more stringent than what you see for rail cars,” he said. “But I’m afraid that the ripple effect will see them crack down even more on over-the-road tank trailers, which I think is unfair, when you look at the volume of product being hauled and the minimal number of accidents. The fact remains, all these trailers going up and down the road are always going over scales and every time you go on a scale, you run the risk of having an inspection. And if you don’t conform, you’re frozen right there and you don’t budge. That doesn’t happen to rail cars. The vast majority of truckers run well-maintained fleets.”

This theory is supported not only by the CTA’s white paper, but also by the Canadian Fuels Association (CFA), which under its former incarnation as the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute (CPPI), used to track very carefully the competence of the carriers serving its petroleum-producing members. John Skowronski, a director with CFA, oversaw CPPI’s carrier awards, which were discontinued when CPPI was rolled into CFA two years ago.

Through the safety awards program, Skowronski said carriers were scored based on their incident rate per number of deliveries, product spills and mixes, as well as accidents and injuries.

“Looking at those metrics, there was a gradual improvement over that 15 years,” Skowronski said. “The number of incidents on a frequency basis reduced almost in half over that 15 years.”

Given its impressive – and improving – safety record, it may not be easy for the feds to implement meaningful change to a system that already seems to be working well. However, the pressure to do so, having already cracked down on the rail industry, will be immense. There are some concerns within industry that the government will introduce a broad-based dangerous goods certification program for drivers, above and beyond what already exists.

Trimac’s Pouliot warns against this.

“Because there’s so much diversity in the industry, for the government to say ‘We’re going to come out with a product handling standard,’ it would be so general that it really wouldn’t benefit the industry,” Pouliot said.

The CTA’s Bradley agreed. “There have been some suggestions made that maybe we should be looking at a mandated standard for dangerous goods training…but the practical reality is that there are so many different types of commodities that are dangerous goods – thousands of them – that to have some sort of a standard training program, you’d have to make things so generic that they’d be worthless,” he added.

Knowing that the trucking industry will have to do more than just poo-poo the government’s ideas, the industry says it’s bringing suggestions of its own to the table. Pouliot said the most effective measure the feds can implement to improve the safety of dangerous goods truckers would be to mandate the use of electronic on-board recorders (EOBRs).

“We have been running them in our entire fleet and have been for years,” Pouliot said. “As a carrier, you are able to continuously monitor the driving habits of a driver if they are speeding, as well as their fatigue level through hours-of-service compliance and proper rest periods. Relative to our segment, I would not hesitate to have a mandatory requirement to have on-board computers if hauling dangerous goods.”

The CTA agreed in its white paper. It also recommended: mandating roll stability systems on all new heavy trucks; introducing a mandatory speed limiter law restricting trucks to 105 km/h; and introducing mandatory entry-level training for truck drivers, based on a national standard. In short, the Alliance is looking to advance its existing agenda, which it says will improve highway safety regardless of vehicle type or commodity hauled.

“We are using this as an opportunity one more time to say, ‘If you want to reduce highway collisions, then there are measures we have long advocated’,” Bradley said. “The arguments in favour stand on their own. I think Lac-Megantic brought home the problems associated with complacency and not taking action, particularly where you have the industry itself calling for change. Perhaps in a perverse sort of way, the benefit of this is that there may be some receptivity to taking actions to avoiding calamities more so than in the past, but we’ll have to see.”

Another issue that the trucking industry will seek to examine in the upcoming hearings will be that of who’s liable when a disaster occurs? Shippers in recent years have been slipping indemnity clauses into freight contracts that often shift complete liability onto the trucking company, even if shipper negligence is to blame for an accident.

The trucking industry would like to see government outlaw these indemnity clauses, as about 40 states have done south of the border.

“This issue of liability is one they need to take a really serious look at,” Bradley said. “Some shippers are trying to use their muscle to make the carrier liable for any claims, regardless of whose fault it was, and that’s not right.”

Following the Lac-Megantic catastrophe, it quickly became clear the railway involved didn’t have the insurance coverage or resources to pay the clean-up costs or to compensate victims. The government was on the hook for much of this expense.

However, Bradley cautioned against simply requiring truckers to carry more insurance coverage.

“When it comes to trucking, there has been no suggestion yet, and I don’t think a case can be made at this point, that the insurance truckers are carrying is not sufficient,” he said.

Bradley also said it would be wrong to direct more enforcement towards carriers and drivers, who are already the most targeted members of the supply chain.

“It seems it’s the carrier and the driver that get dinged at roadside and we wouldn’t want to see that added to,” Bradley said, noting more emphasis should be placed on enforcing shippers to properly placard and document their products. Albrechtsen of Paul’s Hauling said he supports the CTA’s position and that of the Manitoba Trucking Association. He said trucking will be well represented at the public hearings.

He also would like to see more harmonization of regulations across the country – hours-of-service, in particular. However, it’s difficult to imagine the trucking industry receiving greater flexibility as a result of all this.

CFA’s Skowronski said any changes government visits upon industry must not be “disruptive to the competitiveness” of the industry. “If they’re going to change a standard, it can’t be tomorrow, it has to be phased in,” he added.

Both Albrechtsen and Pouliot indicated it’s important the government keeps in mind the valuable role trucking plays in transporting dangerous goods, which are essential to everyday life, and avoids overreacting.

“I understand, and we as a company understand, the role that dangerous goods play in our lives. The obvious example of this is gasoline for your car or furnace oil or propane for heating your house, but chemistry is used in all sorts of consumer products from clothing and computers to cars, so they are a very important element of what I’ll call modern life,” said Pouliot. “So I have no qualms in trying to help educate the general public around this, and at the same time to help (explain) what are the true risks about this. Just about every Canadian has fuelled their car at a service station at some point and would think absolutely nothing about pumping 30, 40, 50 litres (of gas) at a service station into their vehicle. In the whole chain of custody process to get that gas to the service station to go into the car, the weakest point is the person putting it into their vehicle. So, these products can be and are handled safely and have been for a long time.”

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