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Mississauga train disaster sparked safety improvements

November 10, 2014
By

MISSISSAUGA – 

Monday is the 35th anniversary of the Mississauga Miracle.

On Nov. 10, 1979, a Canadian Pacific (CP) freight train skidded off the tracks and exploded like a bomb, spewing clouds of poisonous gas over the suburban city.

“That no one died is a miracle,” said Mayor Hazel McCallion, who coined the phase “Mississauga Miracle.”

More than 200,000 people were forced to evacuate Mississauga after a 106-car freight train derailed carrying hazardous materials: Caustic soda, chlorine, propane, styrene and toluene.

A propane-laden tank ruptured causing a massive explosion near the cars carrying chlorine.

The train, which originated in Windsor, derailed because improperly lubricated bearings on a wheel overheated, causing the crash near Mavis Rd. and Dundas St.

In her first year in office, McCallion managed the largest evacuation in North America, second only to the evacuation triggered by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

The derailment, which left Mississauga a ghost town for a week, could have been deadly if it happened in more populated areas east or west of the crash site.

“There were very few rules (in 1979) and now we have massive regulations for transporting dangerous goods by air, land and sea. Mississauga’s major disaster made it safer for all Canadians,” said McCallion, 93, who steps down as mayor at the end of the month.

“It was also a turning point because there were momentous changes made to how disasters are handled.”

Mississauga Mayor-elect Bonnie Crombie said she wants current freight lines to be routed to the north so they aren’t going through highly-populated cities.

“We know it’s possible. Freight traffic was moved off the south line for commuter traffic. If we have (the freight) trains moving dangerous goods travelling north of Brampton in less inhabited areas, there is less opportunity for disaster,” Crombie said.

Toronto EMS Supt. Bruce Newton, who lived on Mississauga’s border and was one of the first responders on the scene in 1979, recalled that when the train crashed, it was like an earthquake.

“I was off duty and the whole house shook. I could see explosions in the distance,” said Newton. He called his dispatch and was told to go to a support unit station and then to the scene, where there was the toxic smell of chlorine.

“When I got there, there were still massive explosions and things were flying for miles. It was then determined there were cars of chlorine and propane and we started evacuating,” he said.

First responders were told to soak clothes with saline to cover their mouths for protection against the chlorine.

Newton remembers how the disaster intensified as cars kept exploding on the second day — which happened to be Remembrance Day.

“It was ironic that on a day we remember veterans who served … many troops were overcome by gas attacks during the First World War … to think so many years later that Mississauga would be under attack by a deadly cloud of gas was something that just wasn’t supposed to happen,” Newton said.

When CP was asked for an interview, the company sent a pamphlet saying 99.997% of rail shipments with dangerous goods reach their destination safely.

“There have been many technical advances, system training and execution practices in the industry over the past 35 years that have lead to safer operations,” said CP spokesman Breanne Feigel, adding current CP brass are reluctant to comment on the incident, “given the significant period of time that has passed.”

The Mississauga derailment demonstrated the need for stricter requirements for transporting dangerous goods to safeguard municipalities along railway lines, said Transport Canada spokesman Melany Gauvin.

Some rules include a minimum number of crew on trains carrying dangerous goods and the removal of the least crash-resistant tank cars carrying hazardous material by May 2017.

“Transport Canada has taken meaningful, concrete measures to improve railway safety and the safe transportation of dangerous goods by rail, and continues to do so,” Gauvin said.

Keith Stewart, an energy expert with Greenpeace Canada, described the Mississauga crash as a wake-up call that didn’t open the eyes of all legislators.

“After the Mississauga crash, there were a lot of changes made to transporting dangerous goods. The disaster led to changes and after you couldn’t move chlorine in a tank that wasn’t specifically designed to carry it,” Stewart said, adding the lessons learned weren’t applied to transporting oil.

In July 2013, in Lac-Megantic, Que., 47 people died after a train carrying millions of litres of combustible crude oil derailed and exploded. That train travelled through Mississauga and other parts of the GTA.

“There weren’t changes made for transporting oil. The Quebec disaster wouldn’t have been as devastating if the lessons were transferred to moving oil,” said Stewart. “The cars used weren’t safe enough, but were cheaper to use.

“The problem is if they derail, they rupture. You can’t use tin cans on tracks moving huge quantities of hazardous materials through the hearts of municipalities.”

kevin.connor@sunmedia.ca

Article source: http://www.torontosun.com/2014/11/09/mississauga-train-disaster-sparked-safety-improvements

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