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County says people evacuated due to train fire could be out for 2 more days


Emergency crews work at the scene of a train derailment near Gainford Alberta on Sunday October 20, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

GAINFORD, Alta. - Officials west of Edmonton said residents of a village who were forced from their homes after a train wreck and fire were expected to be out of their homes for up to two more days.

Parkland County issued a news release on Sunday stating that its mandatory evacuation order affecting about 100 people in Gainford remains in effect.

Thirteen cars on a CN (TSX:CNR) freight train carrying a cargo of oil and liquefied petroleum gas went off the rails near the tiny hamlet, about 80 kilometres west of Edmonton, early Saturday.

There were two explosions reported and the community was evacuated as a precaution.

Three of the rail cars were carrying liquefied petroleum gas and caught fire, CN has said, while four freight cars that were carrying crude didn't break open.

Firefighters had pulled back from the wreck and were waiting for fuel that has been escaping from some of the wrecked cars to burn itself out.

But CN said late Sunday that a "controlled burn" was being done on the contents of six of the cars containing liquefied petroleum gas.

Company spokesman Warren Chandler said the decision to conduct the burn was reached with Transport Canada, Alberta Environment and officials in Parkland County.

"The parties agree that this is the safest and most effective way to allow the residents to return to their homes as quickly as possible," Chandler said.

Chandler wouldn't say how the burn was being conducted, but noted that large flames and smoke would be visible.

Earlier in the day, the company said CN crews worked Saturday night to move the four cars carrying crude oil a safe distance from the cars laden with liquefied petroleum gas.

The release also said one of the cars that was on fire had burned itself out.

The county has asked residents who've been forced from their homes to keep track of expenses for lodging and food.

County spokeswoman Jackie Ostashek said some people were allowed to visit their properties late Saturday to care for animals.

Saturday's mishap occurred two days after residents in the Alberta community of Sexsmith were forced from their homes when four CN rail cars carrying anhydrous ammonia left the rails. That followed the derailment of 17 CN rail cars, some carrying petroleum, ethanol and chemicals, in western Saskatchewan on Sept. 25.

There were no injuries in any of the derailments.

Despite the cluster of derailments, a CN spokesman said rail remains a safe way to transport materials.

"CN's safety record has been very solid, in terms of its main track derailments last year, they were the lowest on record," said company spokesman Mark Hallman.

"The vast majority of commodities, such as dangerous commodities, that are transported from origin to destination, more than 99 per cent reach destination without any accidental release."

Federal New Democrat MP Olivia Chow took issue with that assessment. She called on the federal government to take stronger action to improve rail safety.

"The latest train derailment, fire and evacuation tell the Conservative government that vague promise without a clear work plan is not enough," Chow said in an email.

She said inspections need to be increased and automatic braking systems need to be mandated. Municipalities also need to be given better information about what dangerous goods are being transported on trains.

Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt's office issued a statement saying the federal government has invested over $100 million in rail safety and brought in tougher fines for companies that violate safety regulations.

The train that derailed at Gainford was travelling to Vancouver from Edmonton.

CN said in its news release Sunday that it was working with regulatory agencies and local authorities to come up with a plan to deal with the remaining liquefied petroleum gas cars so that residents could go home, and so the line could be returned to service as soon as possible.

Detours remained in effect on Sunday on the Yellowhead Highway the main east-west corridor in northern Alberta.

The Transportation Safety Board is trying to determine the cause of the derailment.

In a statement, CN said the track was tested last week as well as last month and no issues were found. It also said an inspection of the train when it left Edmonton on Friday found no problems.

CN was clearly sensitive to the public relations fallout from the derailment. The company brought in some of its top brass to manage the situation, including Chief Operating Officer Jim Vena.

He apologized to the residents of Gainford for the disruption and promised the company would get to the bottom of what happened to prevent it from happening again.

"We run a safe railroad, but we do have incidents," Vena said.

The recent derailments come as documents obtained by Greenpeace suggest CN is considering shipping Alberta bitumen to Prince Rupert, B.C. in quantities matching the controversial North Gateway pipeline.

A departmental briefing note obtained under access to information laws said CN was reportedly working with Chinese-owned oil giant Nexen to examine transporting crude by rail to be loaded onto tankers for export to Asia.

CN denied it made a specific proposal for Prince Rupert, but said it will consider any such project as it comes up.

The Northern Gateway project has faced intense scrutiny and criticism and it was unclear whether the project would get the necessary approval.

There has also been intense scrutiny over shipping oil by rail following July's horrific derailment of a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic train in Lac-Megantic, Que. The subsequent fire claimed 47 lives.


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