07/18/2013 11:22 EDT | Updated 09/17/2013 05:12 EDT

How Harper Failed Us on Rail Safety

I was in a tent getting ready to participate in the 2013 tar sands healing walk when I first saw the images of the Lac-Megantic train disaster. I remember looking at the pictures with horror, praying that the damage wasn't as bad as the images looked and hoping that everyone would somehow be okay.

I walked with those thoughts throughout the 14-kilometre journey through the tar sands and offered prayers for anyone affected by this massive industrial project. I also felt anger growing inside me with each step.

While we still don't know what caused the Lac-Megantic train disaster, we do know that the rail cars involved were spill prone. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board has warned since 1994 that the susceptibility of these tanker cars "to release product at derailment and impact is well documented. The transport of a variety of the most hazardous products in such cars continues."

Safety experts have urged governments for years to replace the cars, or at minimum equip them with heat shields, tank jackets and other additional safety measures, but little or nothing has been done.

The heavier cars likely wouldn't have prevented the Lac-Megantic tragedy but they may have helped. They may have given local residents more time to react. Perhaps fewer vehicles would have caught fire or less oil spilled into the river.

We'll never know what might have been, and neither will the residents of Lac-Megantic because the Harper government never mandated the proposed changes.

The safety picture is similarly troubling on the pipeline side of things.

I know about pipeline problems all too well. I live in Alberta where we have on average 2.2 crude spills a day. That number jumps to over four if you include all the other substances we pump through pipelines.

The list of pipeline disasters is a long one, from Arkansas and Kalamazoo, to Zama City, Little Buffalo, Sarnia, and Merritt. The list, unfortunately, goes on and on. If you've ever been the victim of one of these disasters you know that this is no safe option.

The federal government and the Alberta government are both failing us on the issue of spill detection. The majority of pipeline accidents aren't detected by the spill detection system currently used in Canada or the United States, which miss 19 out of 20 spills, and four out of five spills greater than 1,000 barrels.

Ineffective spill detection means that spills will be larger, affect more areas, and lead to bigger disasters. The recent Apache spill in Alberta near Zama City may have gone on for months and was only discovered by a company flyover. By then, 9.5 million liters of industrial wastewater had doused the fragile wetlands landscape.

The government could force pipeline companies to employ better detection systems, something Germany already does. But just as it allows unsafe rail cars to roll across Canada, our government allows a substandard pipeline system to continue to operate.

There is no safe way to transport oil. The best way to minimize disasters is to transport less of it, which means transitioning away from dirty oil to cleaner ways of producing energy. That transition however will take time.

Meanwhile, we should not be building new, unneeded infrastructure and we should ensure that the fossil fuel transportation system we do have is as safe as possible. The federal government is not doing that now, and its inaction is putting all our communities at risk.

While thoughts must first be with the people of Lac-Megantic, our attention then must turn to the federal government because it has a lot to answer for and more importantly, a lot to do.

Lac-Megantic Explosions, Fire