October 10, 2005

Alberta commission reports interim findings on emergency response

The Environmental Protection Commission established by Alberta Environment following the CN derailment and spill at Lake Wabamun has already made a number of important observations in its interim report, submitted to Environment Minister Guy Boutilier at the end of September.

"We've been able to do a thorough scan of what's out there now in terms of everyone's ability to respond to environmental emergencies, whether it's industrial, municipal or governmental," said Commission chair Eric Newell. "We're seeing a reasonably strong system that needs some work if it's going to meet the demands of a growing economy and population; more and a wider variety of hazardous products being shipped by rail, road and pipeline; and the increased impact of extreme-weather related events," he continued.

Alberta has developed a highly effective emergency response system, enabling a network of relevant agencies to deal with tornadoes, floods, chemical plant fires, gas well blowouts, wildfires and other incidents with potentially severe impacts on the environment and/or public health and safety.

Among the features of this system, notes the report, is a high-quality geographical information system (GIS), developed by Emergency Management Alberta (EMA). Although some other government departments have been licensed to use this GIS, there are still few active users outside EMA. Consequently, key information such as environmental spill containment resources and plume dispersion models for water and air releases is not widely available through the overall system.

Another strength of the province's system is the prevalence of strong industry-government emergency response partnerships for managing risks associated with hazardous materials. Other links have also been created between industry and local authorities and among industry sectors themselves, adds the report. Examples include the Transportation Emergency Assistance Program (TEAP), the northeast region CAER program, and mutual aid programs established by chlorine producers, pipeline operators, oil sands operators and the Fertilizer Institute.

As a result of improved industry and local response capability, Alberta Environment's role in emergency response has moved away from a hands-on response function to one of co-ordination, training and ensuring availability of spill reporting information, says the report.

The Commission observes that while reporting requirements exist for spills of products regulated by Alberta Environment, the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board and under provincial transportation of dangerous goods regulations, there are no product specification requirements for many substances that could harm water resources. This, says the report, makes high-risk areas even more vulnerable to spills or other releases because there may be delays in identifying spilled substances or responding effectively to them.

The Commission has singled out a number of areas for further analysis and expects that its final recommendations will contribute to improving the existing system. The interim report describes specific themes for review.

*Initial response - how to ensure rapid and thorough response to emergencies, getting the right resources to the scene as quickly as possible, perhaps aided by an Emergency and Environmental "9-1-1" system; the Commission is considering risk management analysis of high-risk areas to produce prevention and mitigation plans, and has indicated that it will be doing more work in this area.

*Competent response - providing training to ensure that everyone responsible for disaster prevention and response is prepared. The Commission has raised the idea of creating a Centre of Excellence to capture lessons learned and continuously improve everyone's ability to prevent and respond to environmental emergencies.

*Co-ordinated response - focusing on better ways to integrate all elements of the province's emergency response system, for example through enhanced industry-government response arrangements or an assured "triggering" mechanism. The Commission will also examine jurisdictional issues involving all levels of government, including consistency between the Railway (Alberta) Act and federal transportation regulations.

*Sustainable response - to deal with longer-term recover and restoration requirements following incidents such as floods or tornadoes; this might also involve "pre-positioning" of specialized response equipment, particularly in areas of high risk to Alberta water resources;

*Effective response - including the adoption of an "all hazards" approach, encompassing a wider range of threats to environmental and public safety.

The Commission is scheduled to deliver its final report by the end of November. The interim report may be viewed on Alberta Environment's Web site, www.environment.gov.ab.ca.

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