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Facilities storing hazardous materials pose danger across Canada, say experts

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Canadian Press:http://canadianpress.google.com/article/ALeqM5hP7A3gyhffvfx8foUiDLgrXoS8iA

MACLEANS.CA: http://www.macleans.ca/article.jsp?content=n081204A

Canoe.ca cnews: http://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Politics/2008/08/11/6418156-cp.html

August 12, 2008
TORONTO — Politicians vowed Monday to take a second look at safety and zoning regulations in the wake of a massive explosion at a Toronto propane depot that forced thousands of residents to flee their homes, a fate critics warn could befall other communities across Canada.

Facilities that store hazardous materials like propane span the country and can pose a serious danger, said Franz Hartmann of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

"If you look at the history of how cities are developed in Canada, neighbourhoods are situated right next to industries," said Hartmann.

"That happens... across Toronto (and) in most cities in Canada, you will have that nearby arrangement, which is why the community has a right to know what chemicals are being stored and used in those facilities."

The incident highlights the need for American-style laws that force such businesses to disclose their activities to local residents and what steps are being taken to ensure public safety, critics said.

"That's why you need community right-to-know legislation," said Ontario NDP Leader Howard Hampton.

"Because then, people have the tools themselves."

Calls for more stringent rules governing hazardous material facilities came as dozens of angry, displaced Toronto residents taking shelter at a nearby university campus learned they wouldn't be able to return home Monday because of an asbestos threat and officials scrambled to understand what went wrong.

It's still unclear what authorities knew about Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases before the plant was levelled in a series of ground-shaking explosions that roused terrified residents from their sleep around 4 a.m. Sunday morning.

A Sunrise employee remained unaccounted for Monday and a firefighter died after being found at the scene without vital signs.

A body was found at the site Monday night but police have not identified it and would not say whether they thought it was the missing employee.

The city has no formal complaint about Sunrise on file, although a local city councillor heard objections from local residents when the plant opened, said Toronto Mayor David Miller.

But evacuees say they witnessed troubling activity at the plant, such as workers smoking near tanks that stored the highly flammable liquid gas, he added.

The city doesn't regulate facilities like Sunrise, which operated in an area of northwest Toronto area allocated for industrial use for more than a decade, city officials said.

When the municipality was asked in 2004 and 2006 whether a propane facility could operate on the site, officials confirmed that zoning bylaws permitted it. But it was the provincial Technical Standards and Safety Board that issued a licence to the plant and was responsible for monitoring its safety, Miller said.

City staff are reviewing Toronto's zoning bylaws to identify any other hazardous material facilities that may be operating too close to residential areas, and determine whether the city has the power to impose distancing restrictions on such businesses, Miller said.

"We know that propane facilities, within 1.6 kilometres is the danger zone, which is why people were asked to evacuate their houses within 1.6 km," he said.

"I think it's a reasonable thing to work from that kind of distancing - perhaps it's less than that - but I think it's an entirely reasonable thing, and that's what I've asked city staff to do."

Sarah Miller, a researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said such facilities need to be moved outside of neighbourhoods.

"We need to have them located in remote locations where they're not butted up against residential housing," she said. "There needs to be buffer zones."

The province is also launching a "cross-ministry review" to determine what measures can be taken to better protect public safety, said Community Safety and Correction Services Minister Rick Bartolucci.

Bartolucci was unavailable for comment Monday, but issued a statement saying the Ontario government would work with its partners to "ensure an incident such as the one we saw yesterday does not" happen again.

The provincial Technical Standards and Safety Board, which governs the storage and distribution of propane and gas, wouldn't say Monday whether there were any complaints about Sunrise or when it was last inspected, citing the investigation that's currently underway.

Regulations forbid propane tanks within 25 feet of a residential building and 300 feet of a school, said John Marshall, director of the board's fuel safety program.

The owners of such facilities are required to conduct annual inspections, but aren't required to submit those reports immediately to the board, he said.

However, the company must be able to produce the records in the event that the board conducts a periodic inspection, he said.

The board has 40 inspectors among its 360 employees.

- With files from Ciara Byrne

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