As clean-up continues at the site of a CN train derailment that occurred shortly before noon on Monday at Rainy River First Nations, the accident has reinforced prior concerns about the rail line running right across the main access roads to the community.
RRFN Coun. Anthony C. Bombay, who also has been the band’s fire chief and deputy fire chief at times over the past 24 years, said he’s grateful the eastbound freight train which derailed only was carrying grain and not any of the toxic chemicals other trains transport through the district on a daily basis.
Still, he continues to be alarmed by the possibility of such a disaster happening down the road.
“I re-wrote our emergency plan in 2005, and my number-one concern at that time was dangerous goods spills from the Canadian National Railway,” Coun. Bombay noted in an interview yesterday.
The main issue is the rail line crosses the two primary routes out of Rainy River First Nations: Manitou Rapids Drive and Caribou Drive.
As it turned out, Monday’s derailment occurred west of Manitou Rapids Drive (the westernmost of the two roads). But if a train were to derail or otherwise stop and block those two routes, there would be no way out of the community except via the river.
If that were to happen during an emergency, like a toxic spill, it would disastrous, Coun. Bombay warned.
“It’s almost surreal to me,” he remarked. “My father’s in a wheelchair, Dad’s diabetic. He’s a little closer to the river, and that might have been one of our only options out.
“But even then, with ice breaking up, now what we would do?” he wondered.
Coun. Bombay noted that with prevailing winds, any toxic gases likely would blow southward right into the community.
A toxic spill also could pollute a creek which runs past the tracks exactly at the site of Monday’s derailment—and flows “right smack dab into the middle of the community.”
Coun. Bombay said the fire department did a training session with CN five years ago, and was told a derailment was unlikely because there are multiple safety precautions these days to prevent such things from happening.
He added one of these precautions is the inspection of train wheels for faults. But he took a photo Monday of a wheel with a hole in it.
“I overheard the CN guy saying, ‘This is where it started.’ And everything from that wheel and behind started coming off,” he remarked.
Coun. Bombay also said he’s irked by the fact the band’s fire department wasn’t called about the derailment.
“There was no emergency call-out,” he noted. “I had a band member come get me from my apartment. I had come back from a meeting in Fort, and I was amazed at what I had seen.
“I asked, ‘Do you need a fire truck?’ ‘No, everything’s fine.’ It doesn’t look fine to me.
“I called Treaty Three Police and they, in turn, called CN Police, and no one was alerted,” Coun. Bombay stressed, adding that from what he heard from other band members, the accident had happened 12-16 minutes before he arrived on scene (CN Police eventually did attend the scene).
Coun. Bombay said the concerns are not new. Rainy River First Nations actually has an ongoing claim with CN regarding the land the tracks are on, and the band has talked to the company about access concerns.
He recalled that about 18 years ago, when he was fire chief, the band had consultations with CN, at which time it said it would be willing to pitch in money to help build a road off of Bear Street, which would come out at east end of the reserve.
“If that exit was there, there’s no way all three crossings would ever be blocked,” noted Coun. Bombay.
In more recent talks within the past four-five years, he said CN indicated the two crossings would never be blocked.
But back on Oct. 30, Rainy River First Nations Chief Jim Leonard wrote CN about recent incidents when both were blocked for one hour (on Sept. 27) and 27 minutes (on Oct. 30).
“With both roadways blocked, we have a serious issue with respect to emergency services for our community,” Chief Leonard wrote.
“Considering that we are notifying you of these two incidents, our fire department and fire response team have responded to nearly 10 emergency calls within the past month,” he later added. “We have serious issue with ‘What could have happened’ if the roadways were blocked when we were responding to our emergency calls.
“Heart attack victims only have a few minutes for resuscitation before brain damage occurs, and a house can be engulfed in flames in less than five minutes.
“Again, needless to say, after a 27-minute delay, there would be no survivors,” he stressed.
CN reported that trains were expected to be rolling again by yesterday afternoon, although the grain clean-up will continue for several days.
A total of 13 cars jumped the tracks. No injuries were reported.
Train traffic had been put on hold, but not re-routed, due to the derailment.
The cause of the derailment remains under investigation.