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Just another Friday: Chlorine tankers in Oakville and bomb-trains in Hamilton


(Chlorine Tankers in Oakville, Bomb Trains in Hamilton, and a Water Supply for 9 Million People)


A couple weeks ago on my way to Hamilton to speak with rail safety advocates I noticed something interesting while I looked out my GO Train window.  At the Clarkson, Oakville, Appleby, and Burlington stops there were unit trains with multiple DOT-111 trains carrying oil.  

Looking at the following map and from this website (which is largely accurate but slightly off in the case of Hamilton) it becomes apparent that this line sees major traffic daily due to their historical location.

Our rail lines run along thousands and thousand of miles of rivers, wetlands, and lakes; due to the nature of what they are carrying and limited regulations, our water resources are at serious risk. Often overlooked is that around 9 million people rely on Lake Ontario for drinking water. The trains I noticed crossed multiple watersheds and rivers which feed into Lake Ontario.  Large portions of the rail line are around 2km from the shores of Lake Ontario, which is easily close enough for a spill to reach the water through the storm sewers. As well, our water treatment plants are unable to remove the benzene  (which is used in tar sands dilbit -more specifically the dilluent, and in fracked oil).


When I arrived in Hamilton and mentioned this to the group I was speaking with, one member informed me she had read the DOT-111 Detecting Disaster Spotters Guide and took some pictures of a train at the Oakville GO Station earlier that day.  The pictures included a unit train with dented tank cars, oil-by-rail tankers and Chlorine.



This lead me to research how much data do we really have for our first responders/regulators to make  informed rail safety decisions and what is the current state of our emergency preparedness.  The answer somewhere between criminal ignorance and the blind leading the blind.  As the previous articles outlined, if a major derailment were to happen with a train like the one witnessed in Oakville, we would not be adequately prepared to respond.

While we use a chemical like Chlorine for things like disinfecting our drinking water, medicines, insecticides, solvents to petroleum products, why are we shipping large quantities through arguably the densest urban corridor in Canada? With such minimal regulations and oversight, is this a risk we are willing to accept so a rail company can maximize profit?  If we look at the rail line this train was on and use the most resent estimates of the amount of people in Greater Toronto Hamilton Area (so, including the Halton, Peel, Durham, and York regions), there are close to 7 million people, which is approximately 20% of the Canadian population. Many of us remember the Mississauga Miracle, but can we get so lucky twice?

The Emergency Response Guidebook (ERG) which first responders use highlights the following information for the placard that was photographed. The white placard indicates inhalation hazard and poison, the four digit UN identification number 1017 indicates Chlorine, and it is hazard Class 2 gases (flammable, nonflammable, inhalation hazard/poison, or oxygen). It falls under guide number 124 in the ERG which outlines many things, some highlights include,

“it may be fatal if inhaled or absorbed through skin, runoff from fire control may cause pollution,these are strong oxidizers and will react vigourously or explosively with many materials including fuels, containers may explode when heated, many gases are heavier than air and will spread along ground and collect in low or confined areas (sewers, basements, tanks), Wear positive pressure self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), structural firefighters’ protective clothing provides limited protection in fire situations ONLY; it is not effective in spill situations where direct contact with the substance is possible, If tank, rail car or tank truck is involved in a fire, ISOLATE for 800 meters (1/2 mile) in all directions,” and so on.

If you are like me don’t have a self-contained breathing apparatus or a protective hazmat suit in the closest, the results are not pretty. The Chlorine Institute which represents the industry states, “The maximum airborne concentration below which it is believed that nearly all individuals could be exposed for up to one hour without experiencing or developing irreversible or other serious health effects or symptoms which could impair an individual’s ability to take protective action. For chlorine, this value is 3 ppm (as defined by AIHA),”  and, “the maximum airborne concentration below which it is believed that nearly all individuals could be exposed for up to one hour without experiencing or developing life-threatening health effects. For chlorine, this value is 20 ppm.” When this occurs the Chlorine oxidizes and begines to react with water and cells in our body changing into hydrochloric acid (HCl) and hypochlorous acid (HclO). About 1000 ppm it can be fatal after a few deep breaths of the gas.

(The above chart is for exposure, but the longer you breath Chlorine the worse it gets)

Typically, chlorine is stored and transported as a liquid under pressure and in our case a 90 ton rail car. Liquid chlorine expands in volume by nearly 460 times when it evaporates. Chlorine is two and one-half times heavier than air. As a result, escaping chlorine will tend to accumulate in low areas. Pressurized chlorine will quickly cool to its boiling point (-29°F) as it enters the atmosphere. Upon contact with any heat source–the air, the ground, or water–the heat will cause the chlorine to boil readily. Typically, the boil-off rate will be relatively high initially and then decline as the heat source surrounding the chlorine pool is cooled. Since water in bulk provides a vast heat source for evaporation, any liquid chlorine falling into water should be assumed to rapidly vaporize. For this reason, water should be prevented from coming in contact with a liquid chlorine pool, and chlorine should be prevented from flowing into water drains.

The Chlorine Institute’s pamphlet 74 provides modelling estimates under different scenarios for a Chlorine leak. Using the industry’s data, I decided to calculate what could happen if the Chlorine tanker at the Oakville station was breached. With our 90 ton rail cars (which in a worst case scenario is enough chlorine to possibly kill over 100,000 people) it could be carrying up to 82 metric tonnes of pressurized liquid chlorine. I have outlined previously that chlorine gas from a ruptured 90-ton railcar would travel downwind as far as 66 km in a few minutes, with low-lying gas concentrating in lethal amounts closest to the leak. Twenty-four km downwind you could find Chlorine gas concentration of 20 ppm.

I used the worst case scenario not to be needlessly alarmist, but because worst case scenarios do happen as Lac-Mégantic showed us. Using the pamphlets worst case scenario inputs (wind speed is at 1.5 meters/sec, humidity is 50%, ambient temperature is 25°C, 10 minute release, with a total mass release = 180,000 pounds) the results are:

Maximum downwind distance to 3ppm = 66.8km

Maximum crosswind distance to 3ppm = 3.7km

Maximum downwind distance to 20ppm =  23.4km

Maximum crosswind distance to 20ppm =  3.1km

The map shows an estimate of the distance 3ppm and 20ppm chlorine could travel depending on wind direction.

Using the worst case scenario from where our Chlorine and oil train in Oakville was located, I calculated the distances a lethal leak would take to reach the near by schools as 3m/s:

Oakwood School, JK-5, ~200 students  = 1.95 minutes

Trafalgar School, 9-12, ~1260 students = 4.5 minutes


Abbey Lane, JK-8, ~375 students = 6.7 minutes


The map above shows what a 1km blast area (the estimated size of the Lac-Mégantic blast) would encompass if our Oakville train derailed and exploded a similar manifest.

While calculating these numbers, I noticed on google maps that trains carrying oil-by-rail were clearly visible from satellite images in Hamilton (last year approximately 7% of rail freight traveling through Hamilton was hazardous goods).


The map below shows residential areas in Hamilton that could be within a 1km blast area like Lac-Mégantic.  



Even a cursory look will find examples like Hamilton General Hospital which would likely be destroyed in the case of a catastrophic derailment in the area.



So where does this leave us and what can we do?  I had written previously in the DOT-111 Detecting Disaster Spotters Guide on how to spot trains and form a community group if there isn’t one in your area. More and more communities are coming together to say no to dangerous oil by rail (and pipelines like Line9).  It is only a matter of time before another disaster strikes (as I hope I illustrated above) and our water, communities, and environment needs to be put first before it is too late.



More Information:

Pt. 2: Dr.ed- strangelaws or: hob I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb-train

Pt. 1: DR.-ed strangelaws or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb-train

It’s our right to know, Rail Safety Matters

Getting railroaded with DOT-111 Tanker Trains in Toronto

Oil-By-Rail exports to US up 900 Per Cent

Lisa Raitt and Stephen Harper Still Playing Dangerous Petro Politicking With Our Communities
DOT-111 Detecting Disaster Spotters Guide
Could Toronto be the next Lac-Magnetic 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