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NORTH YORK: Province to review storage regulations following blast

Originally posted in the North York Mirror: http://www.insidetoronto.ca/News/NorthYork/article/53482

Local group calls for 'right-to-know' legislation

August 12, 2008 04:53 PM


Eager to co-operate after the Downsview explosions, Ontario's government has agreed to review its regulations on storing dangerous gases, Toronto Mayor David Miller said Tuesday.

But the city's mayor suggested he wasn't happy with the way previous provincial governments handled the issue.

The former Conservative government divested itself of direct responsibility for fuel storage in 1996 when it created the Technical Standards and Safety Authority, a non-profit agency that inspects storage sites every three years or so.

Before that, the province joined with the propane industry in fighting bylaws passed by the former cities of York and Toronto that would have toughened provincial safety requirements, including setbacks from residences.

Both bylaws only proposed setbacks of 100 feet, nothing close to the 1.6-kilometre distance from residences Miller said should be the proposition "we have to start from."

Still, after Superior Propane and a propane industry association challenged the 1987 York bylaw, the province took the company's side, arguing York's attempt to regulate setbacks and the amount of propane stored on sites infringed on its own powers.

York won in Divisional Court in 1991 but lost a unanimous ruling at the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1995 and its application for a Supreme Court appeal was turned down the following March.

The same opponents challenged the former City of Toronto's 1991 bylaw at the Ontario Municipal Board, which after the amalgamation of the Toronto megacity in 1998, was allowed to quash the bylaw without a hearing.

Miller cited the bylaws' eventual defeat as a reason why the city's involvement in licensing applications for Sunrise Propane years later was limited to confirming the property's heavy-industry zoning, which he said remains the same as it was first drawn in 1952.

"We're obviously limited legally by what we can do," Miller said, arguing the city "cannot go to a propane company and say, 'You're legally allowed to be in this neighbourhood but we don't want you here.'"

The TSSA's three-year inspection cycle, supplemented by annual inspections by owners themselves, seemed worrying to Miller, who said it is one area the province has agreed to review.

A visit by TSSA inspectors once every three years seems too infrequent, Miller said. "Suppose the operator doesn't operate to the highest standards. How are you going to find that out?"

He added there should be proactive inspections for such storage facilities, "especially when you have a new facility. It just sounds like common sense."

And asked whether the province should go back to direct government control over inspections, Miller said it was "an extremely legitimate question" to ask.

Standing nearby at the City Hall press briefing, Ontario Safety League President Brian Patterson criticized what he called "limited and cursory" inspections by the TSSA.

Ontario's chief public safety advocate was then asked what he thought convinced the province to create the TSSA. "Excessive lobbying by the industry," whose members wanted to police themselves, he responded. "The previous regulations were an irritant to them."

Sunday's disaster ought to spell the end of industry self-regulation, Patterson said.

Toronto is fortunate; firefighters of other municipalities might not have the resources to deal with a similar disaster, he added. "Why should 200 firefighters respond to a scene like that and not know what's on the premises?"

The right to know what fuels or chemicals are stored on a site is a must, at least for first responders, Patterson argued. "Certainly, the fire hall closest to the site ought to have known how much propane was there."

Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance, said the accident illustrates why a "Right to Know" bylaw proposed through Toronto's Board of Health is needed. While propane is not one of the 25 toxic substances that would be required to be reported to the public, it would have let people know about toxic substances put at risk because of the explosion, Hartmann said.

"Next time, we may not be so lucky."

York Centre MPP Monte Kwinter said the key issue is not the inspection rules but the site's zoning, a city responsibility. "That is the critical point. That is when it should have been stopped," he said.

Like a man given a clean bill of health who has a heart attack the next day, Kwinter said, it's possible Sunrise Propane could have been inspected Friday and found in order before the accident happened Sunday.

But Kwinter said he doesn't believe any hazardous material should be allowed, regardless of zoning, across from homes. The MPP, who was consumer and commercial relations minister from 1985 to 1987 - responsible for various industries the TSSA now inspects - said he doesn't remember why the province challenged the bylaws. "That was then and this was now. Let's make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.

"Now that we are confronted with this thing and now we see potentially what can happen, we have to do something about it."

Tracy Walden, a spokesperson for the Propane Association of Canada, which fought both bylaws, said it supports its members in court but does not always oppose new government regulation. "Sometimes, there's an alternative that would provide equal or more safety," she said from Ottawa.

"The industry wouldn't want something that wasn't safe because that just comes back to bite you."

Province to review storage regulations following blastAug1208.pdf20.79 KB