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DOT-111 detecting disaster spotters guide

How To Spot DOT-111 Trains In Your Community

Through our cities, towns, and rural communities across Canada, 1960’s-era  DOT-111A rail cars -which were deemed to have serious safety issues over 20 years ago- continue rumble by. These train cars which were originally used to haul nonhazardous materials such as corn syrup, now increasingly carry explosive bakkan oil, tar sands dilbit, ethenol, and a plethora of other hazardous chemicals under a toxic cloud of secrecy.

Ottawa and the rail industry do not publicly disclose information on when, where, and how much hazardous material is moving through our neighbourhoods. While Stephan Harper and Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt feel the commercial interests of the rail/oil industry are more important than local residents and first responders right to know and make informed decisions for their communities, it is possible to spot hazardous material on your local rail lines. Depending on your community, approximately 10% of all products moved on Canadian Class 1 rail lines are dangerous goods. At the same time, around 80% of the tank car fleet in Canada are DOT-111A cars.

In the coming weeks make sure to check back as I will be writing more in-depth articles on the history of the incredible increase of crude by rail, why it is so difficult to find useful information on rail safety, the false choice of the pipeline vs. crude by rail debate, and neo-liberalism/NAFTAs effect on rail regulation/insurance. 

But for now, lets examine what to look for to spot these tank cars and how to determine if they are carrying hazardous waste.


Class 1 Rail lines of North America


First, you need to determine where the closest rail line is that is carrying crude by rail.  While there are three classes of rail lines, the major rail lines (Class 1, in which CP and CN are rail carriers) are in my experience the best place to look for DOT-111 cars.  The map above shows where  Class 1 rail lines are in North America.



Top: rail yard in Ottawa with DOT-111 tanker cars visible from google maps

Bottom: rail line passing distribution terminal and residential housing in Nepean

Further, google maps or earth is an easy tool to use to find rail lines, and in some cases you can even spot what are likely DOT-111 cars. Look for ground level crossings where cars can pass, pedestrian bridges over rail lines, or public parking lots along the rail corridor as they are all good vantage points.  Despite the rail industry’s spurious claims of security concerns and safety, fences lining rail lines are porous and you will no doubt easily find many cuts in fences and broken gates. As well, in a race to the bottom to cut costs for share holders, reporters have found security personnel virtually none existent in many cases. You should remember before you make any decision in this regard that if you enter onto the rail companies property you are illegally trespassing and your safety could be at risk.

Second, what should you bring.  Make sure to prepare for the elements, if it is cold to dress warm and if it is hot remember to bring a hat, sunscreen and plenty of water. I have also found a lawn chair or blanket, some food, binoculars, and a notebook are helpful. Sometimes you can wait hours to see a DOT-111 pass, and other times mere minutes.  As rail schedules are not public record it is a guessing game. If you do have some time on your hands while you wait, it is a good idea to review the Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG).  Most importantly you want to document the dozens of different hazardous materials you might find, so remember to bring a camera or a video camera.


Third, in order to find out what is in the rail cars, you need to know how to be able to read the information posted on them. We have all probably seen a unit train moving past us with hundreds of black tank cars.  To determine if these cars are carrying hazardous material or other freight, you need to look at the information listed on the rail car.  First, you will need to download or order a copy of the Emergency Response Guidebook which is used by first responders to attempt to identify hazardous material quickly when an incident occurs. There is also an app free to download that uses information from the ERG to detect cargo quickly that can be found here.

Transportation Safety Board of Canada Rail Car Identification Chart

TSBC video of breached DOT-111 rail car from Lac-Mégantic

There are numerous models of DOT-111 tank cars on the rails in our communities, but the majority of what will find is the DOT-111A variety.  Some of the new models (approximately 14,000 since 2011 out of 272,000 in operation in North America) have what’s known as a half-height or full-height shield, covering the bottom half of each end, and a few other safety modifications. Around 171,000 DOT-111s transport hazardous material and 94,000 transport flammable liquids such as bakken crude oil. There are 5 companies manufacturing 95% of the North American oil tanker fleet (none of which will give information regarding the manufacturing back log).  Generally though, the cars will look similar and regardless of whether they are new or old, they should not be routed through our communities in either case.  Further, the fact that the new cars have increased safety features does not mean they are safe and cannot have a major accident.

A placard provides a variety of information through several different methods. The first information indicator is the color of the placard. Red indicates flammable, green indicates nonflammable, yellow indicates oxidizer, blue indicates dangerous when wet, white indicates inhalation hazard and poison, black and white indicates corrosive (acid and caustic), red and white indicates flammable solid or spontaneously combustible, depending on the color pattern on the placard, white and yellow indicates radiation or radioactive, orange indicates explosives, white with black stripes indicates miscellaneous hazardous materials, and there is another red and white placard that says “dangerous” on it.


A Four-digit United Nations (UN) number will tell you more specifically what that train is carrying. The number for crude oil, which might include toxic tar sands dilbit or fracked oil from the Bakken oil field is 1267 and there will be small red diamond placards signs posted on the end and side of the DOT-111 car. Chances are you will also see other placard numbers and hazardous materials which you can reference in the Emergency Response Guidebook.  


Another thing to look for is the class/packing group. Shipments of crude and other refined products – as well as other corrosive, radioactive, flammable and explosive materials- are classified into class/packing groups. There are 9 classes for hazardous materials:Class 1 explosives, Class 2 gases (flammable, nonflammable, inhalation hazard/poison, or oxygen), Class 3 liquids that burn (flammable and combustible liquids, based on their flashpoint), Class 4 flammable solids, spontaneously combustible, or dangerous when wet materials, Class 5 oxidizers and organic peroxides, Class 6 poison/toxic solids and liquids, infectious materials, Class 7 radioactive (three sub classes), Class 8 corrosives (acids and bases), Class 9 miscellaneous.  In the Emergency Response Guide there are also additional numbered guides on how to respond to an accident relating to the different classes. Petroleum crude oil is considered a dangerous good and is categorized into one of three groups ranging from Class 1, which is the most flammable and volatile, to Class 3, which is the least. The TSB determined over the course of its investigation that the bakkan crude being transported in the Lac-Megantic disaster was mislabeled as a Class 3 product, when in fact it was a Class 2 product.

There will also be an information indicator is the symbol in the upper corner of the diamond with variety of symbols are used to indicate combustion, radiation, oxidizers, compressed gas, destruction of materials and skin by corrosives, an explosion, or skull and cross bones to indicate poisons.

Fourth, how should you report and share your findings.  Facebook groups and websites are a great way to share information and pictures with those you know in your community.  But, an important ancillary way to share this information to a wider audience is through twitter.  If you have a picture of crude by rail or another hazardous material being transported through your city, using the the hashtag #DOT111 and a hashtag for cities airport code when possible (ex #yyz) allows others to easily determine where the train was spotted.  Additionally, you can add further information from the placard to share exactly what just went past your community.

So, what can you do to change this situation?  The most important step -outlined above- is to gather the information that we should all have the right to know in the first place.  Once you have the evidence of what is being transported through your community you can really start to organize and prove that you are not just being ‘alarmist’ as the rail industry would imply. Make sure your information is somewhere accessible: facebook, websites, twitter, and youtube are all great tools to share information. Looking at where the rail line crosses in your community will inform much of what you can do at the grassroots level.  As outlined in this previous post, would the blast area of a possible derailment affect schools, hospitals, homes, or facilities that use dangerous chemicals?  Have fun, meet your neighbours, reach out to allied groups and -depending on your situation- organize a group to leaflet areas that would be effected, hand out information outside of schools, or poster your neighbourhood. The challenge is so many people are just unaware of the travelling bombs that careen through their backyards, no sane person would accept the risk we currently face.


On the political level there are also a lot of options to demand change, how successful you are depends on how much support you can gain in your community. Firstly, the rail and oil companies are a lost cause and, frankly, a waste of your time and resources; it is simply a PR exercise for them and they don’t care.  Municipalities are a good place to start.  Cities have already started passing motions (some with teeth and some watered down) to demand the federal government, “inform municipalities of the volume and frequency of potentially hazardous materials traveling through City boundaries, the specific material type and that this information be made readily available to the public.” Find progressive and/or rational municipal representatives in your city (sometimes more difficult than it seems) and talk with them about this issue.  If they support you but feel they would not have enough votes in council to pass a motion you may choose to start organizing community meetings, talking to local churches or residents’ associations, and hold information sessions in areas throughout your community.  In most cases, if you can build up the support to make the issue a election/voting issue, your municipal representative will support the motion.  Federally, find out where your local Member of Parliament stands on this issue.  Try to get them on record with their position (and make sure to check if their votes correspond or if they are just giving you lip service).  If they are an ally then ask kindly that they help make this issue a priority.  If not, will they vote in favour of Harper’s next omnibus budgets?  Ask them why changes to the Rail Safety Act are buried and hidden in this budget where there will be little if any debate on the issue.  Maybe contact all your local media outlets with your information and ask them to hold your MP accountable and to ask the tough questions of why the MP is supporting a government who would rather put communities in danger than provide thorough regulations on rail. There are many options, you know your local context and what will work.

Other hazardous materials shipped in unit trains carrying crude by rail:

What you find, and how you document it, will likely determine how you can lobby to change your situation. Chances are that you will find other hazardous chemicals on trains carrying explosive bakkan crude oil or dilbit.  For example, in Eugene Oregon, in addition to crude oil, over the course of a month one person spotted liquefied chlorine gas (1017) which can spread for miles if it leaks, liquefied natural gas (1972), and hydrochloric acid (1789) which cause severe injury, burns or death, in downtown Eugene.8  

As in the Eugene example, in addition to crude by rail you might find a dangerous mixture of other hazardous chemicals moving through your communities. Substances such as ammonia, chlorine, crude oil and jet fuel are among those that the railway carries daily in Canada. Rail Companies operate under “common carrier obligation,” an obligation under Canadian law which says all commodities are equal.

Many people may remember the ‘Mississauga Miracle’ over 30 years ago when a CP freight train derailed and leaking chlorine car lead to 218,000 residents being evacuated for five days (the largest peace time evacuation until hurricane katrina).  Well unbelievable, large quantities of chlorine continue to be shipped through Canadian communities at a time when Harper government cutbacks mean Transport Canada only has 35 inspectors in its Transportation of Dangerous Goods division to cover all transportation modes. While we need chlorine for clean drinking water, shipping large quantities through our communities, as is the case in North Vancouver and in other dense residential areas, is unacceptable.


Canexus facility in North Vancouver

For example, there are 90 ton rail cars (which in a worst case scenario is enough chlorine to possibly kill 100,000 people) carrying 82 metric tonnes of pressurized liquid chlorine 15 kilometers from downtown Vancouver at the Canexus facility. The Chlorine Institute in Pamphlet 74 shows how chlorine gas from a ruptured 90-ton railcar would travel downwind as far as 64 km in a few minutes, with low-lying gas concentrating in lethal amounts closest to the leak. Twenty-four km downwind, the institute’s pamphlet predicts a chlorine gas concentration of 20 parts per million, a strength described as “the maximum airborne concentration” people can tolerate for up to one hour “without experiencing or developing life-threatening health effects.” This chlor-alkali plant also produces 30% of the hydrochloric acid (used in fracking activities) and 50% of the caustic soad used in Western Canada; the plant expanded in 2013 to increase capacity 150% due to demand fracturing activity in the oil and gas industry.


DOT-111 trains in Thunder Bay

If you live in Saskatoon, there is a ERCO facility which produced sodium chlorate, sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid, and chlorine, shipping these chemicals by rail. North of Edmonton, Canexus’ new Bruderheim Terminal’s is moving caustic soda and hydrochloric acid (for fracking), as well as third-party hydrocarbons (bitumen & diluent), in and out of Alberta by rail on CP and CN lines. Also being shipped (presumably on the same unit trains as fracked oil), this terminal increased diluted bitumen and crude oil truck-to-rail transloading at a rate of 23,800 bbls/day in December 2013 with future expansion expected to provide 30,000 bbls/day of capacity. With its pipeline-connected unit trains, this 480-acre site’s next expansion is underway to further increase terminal-rail loading capacity (operational by Q3/14), with MEG Energy Stonefell Terminal pipeline and the Inter Pipeline for delivery of bitumen blend from the Cold Lake pipeline system (with a initial guaranteed capacity around 100,000 bbls/d).  In Thunder Bay, another ERCO facility manufacturers and ships sodium chlorite by rail. In Montreal, trains reach/leave refineries located on the island carrying a myriad of toxics; Suncors 137,000-barrel-per-day refinery produces gasoline, distillates, ashphalt, heavy fuel oil, solvents, feedstocks for lubricants, and petrochemicals (hydrogen sulphide processing services, molten sulphur transfer facility, sodium bisulphite production plant and more).


Top: rail lines for Sarnia’s ‘Chemical Valley’

Bottom: Aamjiwnaang First Nation bordered by chemical facilities and rail lines

If you live in the Sarnia area’s ‘Chemical Valley’ where 40% of Canada’s chemical industry is located, where to start. For example, NOVA Chemicals’ Corunna site is a refinery and petrochemical complex that supplies between 30% and 40% of Canada’s total requirements for primary petrochemicals. The refinery is capable of producing in excess of 6.5 billion pounds of basic petrochemicals. The Corunna site processes crude oil, condensate and natural gas liquids (NGLs) that are delivered to the site by pipeline from western Canada. These products are the feedstocks used to manufacture ethylene, propylene, butadiene, iso-butylene, n-butylene, benzene, toluene and xylene. Another NOVA plant sits across from the Aamjiwnaang reserve where health issues, including miscarriages, chronic headaches, asthma , and 40% of band members surveyed required an inhaler as a result of the chemistry (60 industrial facilities found within a 25-kilometre radius of Aamjiwnaang). While the health effects of breathing in the chemical particulate in the air are staggering, what would happen with a spill on CN line through their land carries petrochemical daily. Sarnia is home to the second largest train yard in Ontario with hundreds of trains serving the Chemical Valley, situated on the south end of town.  Hazardous chemicals are also moved by rail on a CN rail spur and a line on the harbour waterfront which in the last decade there have been two incidents of “runaway trains” along that stretch of track. Even the mayor of Sarnia has commented on this incredibly unsafe situation stating, “There appears to be less safety regulators, what it comes down to is there seems to be a lot of self-regulation and only reaction on behalf of the federal government.“



Left: Blast Area of Lac Mégantic explosion would encompass GE Hatachi uranium pellet facility

Right: proximity of tracks at ground level to the GE Hatachi uranium pellet facility

Another example is that the unit train which exploded in Lac Mégantic passed through Toronto and numerous communities days earlier. As outlined earlier, the impacts in a city like Toronto would be horrific and particularly devastating if it occurred near the GE Hatachi plant. This plant manufactures nuclear fuel pellets for Canada’s nuclear power plants from uranium dioxide (UO2) powder which are then shipped to Peterborough to be bundled for nuclear plants. The Toronto plant receives 1800 tons of uranium power each year, maintains a substantial onsite chemical inventory, contaminated water storage drums, and discharges 1,368,270L of treated water effluent a year. While the plant maintains a good safety record in regards to the dangerous materials stored on site, being situated next to train tracks carrying traveling bombs poses a risk any sane person would determine is unacceptable; not only for the community but our watershed, rivers and environment.


These are but a few examples of what is traveling through your communities. Remember you have the right to make informed decisions.  You have the right to say yes or no regarding your community. And, you have a ‘right to the city.’

The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

The Council of Canadians supports the call for an immediate moratorium on the use of DOT-111A cars.

Further reading
Could Toronto be the next Lac Mégantic disaster
Oil cars on fire after train collision in North Dakota
Moving oil by rail to expand despite public concerns
Harper told no regulatory approval needed for moving tar sands oil by rail