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Expert says no one ready for another Lac-Megantic

MONTREAL - An expert who examined the devastating train derailment in Lac-Megantic says no plans and equipment are in place to deal with a similar situation as the one-year anniversary of the tragedy approaches.

Rosa Galvez-Cloutier, a civil engineering professor at Universite Laval, says she doesn't think much has changed since the massive explosion and fire that killed 47 people on July 6, although the federal government has tightened regulations.

"There was an evident lack of preparation at all levels," she said on Wednesday. "Prevention measures, preparedness and emergency plans need to urgently be updated."

She says firefighters and security officials were overwhelmed by the inferno when the derailment happened.

"I think there was a panic and there was a lack of co-ordination," the Quebec expert said.

Galvez-Cloutier, who was at the scene, says she was surprised to see firefighters were still cooling the oil tanker cars after eight hours and they were even not fighting the fire.

She says what made it even more complicated was there was no information about the exact composition of the oil that was being burned.

Galvez-Cloutier says if firefighters knew that, they would have known what type of actions to take, such as using foam to combat the blaze.

"I know that Ultramar brought in, as a last resort, some foam to assist, but this was based on their goodwill, not a pre-planned emergency measure," she said.

Galvez-Cloutier made her comments online during a webinar hosted by the Science Media Center of Canada.

In its recent budget, the Quebec government announced annual funding of $4 million to provide financial assistance for the training of part-time volunteer firefighters in municipalities.

It noted that the Lac-Megantic disaster showed part-time volunteer firefighters are often first responders in many municipalities in Quebec and the funding will "help ensure that Quebec's municipalities can respond effectively to such disasters."

During her presentation, Galvez-Cloutier also noted that important information about the environmental effects of the oil spill is still unknown.

"There was a destruction of the waste water treatment plant at Lac-Megantic city that released pathogens into the water and not much has been said about this," she said. "These pathogens can include E. coli viruses and other pathogens."

Jean-Paul Lacoursiere, a chemical engineering expert, says the highly-volatile crude was being shipped from North Dakota and the Bakken shale formation, from which the oil is extracted, extends into Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

"We are going to face (light) oil either from Alberta where it's occurring and from Saskatchewan and Manitoba and potentially from the Anticosti Island here in Quebec," the University de Sherbrooke professor said.

"That's the future of what's going to be transported — that's what I see personally."

The federal government has prohibited use of DOT-111 tanker cars — the kind that ruptured in Lac-Megantic — for transporting dangerous goods.

"The roll-out of improved tank cars is going to be a significant improvement," Bill Hjelholt, a freight rail industry expert, told the webinar.

Ottawa has also strengthened emergency response requirements and ordered railways hauling dangerous goods to assess the risk of routes and reduce train speeds.

In addition, communities alongside tracks are advised of hazardous goods carried by rail, but — apparently for security reasons — only after they have passed through.

The Railway Association of Canada, a group that represents rail companies, says the industry is committed to do what is required in the areas of safety, training and emergency preparedness to prevent another disaster like the one that occurred in Lac Megantic.

It says the rail industry in North America is spending $2.5 billion this year to ensure the safety of its infrastructure.

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