Review commends Alberta's progress in strengthening environmental emergency response, readiness
The Alberta Environmental Protection Commission has commended the Alberta government for its progress in implementing recommendations made by the Commission aimed at strengthen the province's emergency management and response capability and its readiness for future environmental crises.
"We're satisfied that if an environmental disaster like the one that happened over a year ago at Lake Wabamun occurred today, the situation would be handled much more effectively," said Commission chair Dr Eric Newell.
The Environmental Protection Commission was convened by Environment Minister Guy Boutilier within days of the August 3, 2005 incident in which 43 CN railcars went off the tracks beside Lake Wabamun, spilling thousands of litres of Bunker C oil and pole treating oil into the lake. Its report, submitted to the Environment Minister and to Municipal Affairs Minister Rob Renner last December (EcoWeek January 2, 2006), made ten recommendations based on an examination of response systems in other provinces and jurisdictions together with a review of Alberta's emergency response model.
In a review following up on its report, the Commission cites a number of achievements. It notes that Alberta Municipal Affairs has moved to establish a senior agency responsible for emergency management and response and the one-window call centre, as recommended by the Commission. The department is in the process of hiring the first managing director for the new agency.
Another accomplishment has been Alberta Environment's assembling of a support and emergency response "swat" team, made up of 12 full-time employees specifically hired for their experience in environmental emergency response, recovery and remediation as well as planning, training and communications.
The Commission further cites progress made by Alberta Infrastructure and Transportation on resolving jurisdictional issues that have hampered efforts in the past. This includes a critical agreement between the department and the federal government allowing Alberta inspectors to exercise federal inspector powers at federal rail incidents. The agreement will also transfer to the province jurisdiction regarding dangerous goods oversight on provincial short-line railways, notes the report.
The Commission also calls attention to a detectable change in culture throughout the emergency response system, with important strides being made to ensure that the right people and resources are brought in quickly and at the right time. Stakeholders are coming together to respond to the issues, including industry, municipalities, various provincial departments, the federal government, and aboriginal jurisdictions, adds the report.
Nevertheless, much still remains to be done: Alberta must continue to strengthen its system and build capacity through training, investment and research. Given the province's growing industrial base and population increase, this is less a criticism than a statement of reality, says the Commission. It urges the government to continue work on establishing an institute to fund research into areas where not enough is known about risks and how to mitigate them, and to disseminate information on leading practices throughout the province.
Its review also recommends that the province accelerate work on the senior agency, bring other public entities with a role in public safety to the table, and assign priority to adopting an all-hazards risk management approach throughout the province. Work has already begun in this latter area, including development of a list of high-risk areas.
"With so much happening in the province," says the report, "we have to ensure that the risks to major water bodies, populated areas and other environmentally sensitive areas are understood and mitigated."
Chaired by University of Alberta chancellor Dr Newell, the Commission's members included Dr Ron Goodman, Doug Goss, Alan McFayden, Dr Marlo Raynolds, Dr David Schindler and Al Schulz.