August 15, 2005


Spill mismanagement spotlights Canadian TDG system inadequacies

Two major toxic substance spills into Canadian waterways in recent days have highlighted glaring inadequacies in Canada's systems of transportation of toxic substances. The risk for industry is that political reaction to the spills may substantially increase industry's costs for shipping dangerous goods.

That management of the Wabamun lake spill was massively incompetent now seems almost undeniable. Wabamun Lake is a long shallow lake, 20 km long and 7 km wide, just 70 km west of Edmonton. It provides a major recreational resource for many city folks and a source of drinking water for hundreds of residents and thousands of vacationers. As home to three power plants, a couple of coal mines, a sewage treatment plant and an aboriginal fishery, it is likely the most environmentally studied lake in Canada.

Following the railway's spill of a large quantity of pole treating oil, described by its manufacturer as a cause of skin cancer and a possible cause of cancer of the lung and of other parts of the body, it is not surprising that many Albertans are looking to government to lay blame as well as charges.

The Wabamun spill could not have come at a more challenging time in the political arena. A minority federal government facing an election within months is already challenged by its apparent lack of action on the environment. Environmentalists are boycotting the government's Chemicals Sector Sustainability Table, a key federal advisory committee on regulation of the industry, in major part because they are upset that a vice-president of Imperial Oil has been made co-chair of the Table.

Unfortunately for Environment Minister St├ęphane Dion, Imperial Oil is the company that manufactures pole treating oil.

Alberta Environment Minister Guy Boutilier, a fresh young face, wants to show that Conservatives care about the environment and can be tough on polluters. His government hopes that a tough stand by Alberta will boost the Conservative government-in-waiting in Ottawa, a party that has had great difficulty attracting any of the environmental vote.

Industry's voluntary Responsible Care program lies in tatters. Whatever the facts that might subsequently emerge, Wabamun Lake is convincing the public that industry's management of hazardous substances is more irresponsible than responsible.

In this overheated political climate, it is beyond a doubt that either Alberta or Canada or both will lay charges. One of them may also order a public enquiry.

Either way, industry had better prepare for the dirty laundry of transportation of dangerous goods to be aired in public for several years to come. At the end of it all, tougher regulations are a virtual certainty.

~Colin Isaacs

Colin Isaacs, head of the CIAL Group and publisher of the Gallon Environmental Letter, reviews environment-related trends in policy (government and corporate) and legislation for ELW. Comments may be E-mailed to

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