OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada is considering classifying crude oil as a higher-risk, dangerous product requiring emergency response plans for shipment by rail following a train accident that leveled the heart of a Quebec town in July, a government official said on Friday.
The federal government's transport department will draft proposed regulations in February to require emergency response assistance plans for the transportation of crude oil, said Jan O'Driscoll, a spokesman for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said.
The derailment of a runaway train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July killed 47 people in North America's deadliest rail accident in two decades.
The accident heightened attention on the oil-by-rail sector, which has grown enormously in recent years as pipelines have failed to keep pace with rapidly rising oil production in Alberta, North Dakota and elsewhere.
The new regulations would require a detailed plan for how a railroad would respond to an accident. Such plans would not deal with whether oil tanker cars should be strengthened and would not prevent oil from moving through cities and towns.
Separately, investigators from Raitt's department searched the Saint John, New Brunswick, offices of refiner Irving Oil on Friday as part of a probe of whether rail safety rules had been followed ahead of the Lac-Megantic disaster. The train that derailed had been destined for Irving's refinery in Saint John.
Ashley Kelahear, a spokeswoman for Raitt, declined to give more details.
An Irving spokeswoman confirmed government investigators had made requests regarding its operations. "We continue to fully cooperate with them, complying with all requests for information. Operations remain normal," said Samantha Robinson.
The accident in Lac-Megantic pushed the railroad responsible, the Montreal Maine & Atlantic, into bankruptcy protection.
In regard to upcoming regulations, a federal working group that includes representatives from the oil and rail industries and municipalities is to recommend by the end of January what would be needed in such emergency plans.
The government expects to draft proposed regulations the following month. It is possible different emergency plans would be required for different kinds of crude, depending on the volatility of the oil.
Brian Stevens, national rail director for the labor union Unifor, said he expects new regulations would require a different placard be placed on tanker cars to specify their contents.
But he said the government should go further and require tanker cars be strengthened.
"It still doesn't address one of the fundamental issues, that this product is in the wrong container... And because of that, a placard isn't going to prevent the puncture," said Stevens, a qualified rail car mechanic who has a certificate for the transportation of dangerous goods.
The Lac-Megantic train included DOT-111 cars, which carry liquids. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has said older models of DOT-111 are vulnerable to leaks and explosions.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Solarina Ho in Toronto; Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson, Leslie Adler and Dan Grebler