Most of the effective environmental leaders I know did not set out to become environmental leaders. They were typically people who cared about their communities and felt an unshakeable desire to make sense of situations that didn’t feel quite right.
Whether you are a lawyer, a retiree, or a student, the journey to becoming an environmental leader often starts out the same way: by asking a bunch of questions.
That’s one reason I think the work that Safe Rail is doing is so important.
Waterkeeper met Safe Rail’s Helen Vassilakos last summer when she visited our Toronto office. Along with other junction-area residents, Helen had noticed an increase in the number of trains passing through her neighbourhood. They investigated, and discovered that the rail shipments contained hazardous material. And the increase in rail shipments passing through her neighbourhood was enormous:
- In 2009, 500 carloads of hazardous material (mostly crude oil) were shipped by train
- By 2016, that number will reach 510,000 carloads. That's over a 1000% increase in seven years.
Safe Rail’s concerns were heightened by the tragedy in Lac Magentic; the train carrying crude oil that devastated the Quebec town had first travelled from North Dakota, through the GTA and Montreal.
Safe Rail wanted some basic information about the reason for the increase in hazardous materials, the safety of those materials, and the city’s ability to respond in the event of an accident or spill.
Some of that information was hard to come by. That’s when they approached Waterkeeper.
We directed Safe Rail to the Auditor General’s environmental petition process. This is one of the best processes in the country for asking the government to provide information or answer questions.
“The petitions process was established by Parliament to make sure Canadians can get answers from federal ministers on specific environmental and sustainable development issues that involve federal jurisdiction.”
Safe Rail created a petition with 17 questions for Transport Canada and Environment Canada. You can read it here.
The federal government has 120 days to respond to Safe Rail’s petition, once it is processed by the Commissioner for the Environment and Sustainable Development.
Thanks to Safe Rail’s volunteer efforts, information thousands of Canadians have been seeking will soon be shared.