OTTAWA, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Budget cuts have left safety-related engineering positions vacant in the Canadian agency responsible for overseeing shipments of dangerous goods, government records show, fueling worries about trains moving oil across the country.
Rail safety is in focus with the boom in oil shipments and a spate of derailments across North America, and the vacancies create a safety risk, industry experts and Canada's public engineers' union say.
The chair of the Transportation Safety Board, Kathy Fox, says there is risk of a spill as long as the government fails to address its oversight weaknesses and improve tank car standards.
"We don't believe that the current standard is sufficiently robust to prevent liquid spilling in the event of a derailment or rail accident, so what we want to see are tougher standards for tank cars carrying flammable liquids," Fox told Reuters.
A recent analysis by the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration estimated that a failure to upgrade existing regulations would lead to the equivalent of 10 major accidents, costing more than US$18 billion in damages, including fatalities, over the next 20 years.
Retired and current employees from Transport Canada told Reuters that engineers in the department's dangerous goods division would be responsible for developing new standards.
Fox said her board had not determined whether staffing levels were a factor, but said until new standards are in place, "during this period, we continue to be at risk with large transport of flammable liquids by rail."
Last year, 47 people were killed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic after a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded.
Mark Hallman, a spokesman for the Canadian National Railway Company, declined to comment on Transport Canada's staffing and resources. But he said the Lac-Mégantic tragedy highlighted the importance of better standards.
"For CN, tank car design is one of the most important systemic issues arising from the Lac-Mégantic rail accident," Hallman told Reuters. He said the company "strongly supports" better standards requiring retrofitting or phasing out older model DOT-111 cars, as well as reinforced standards for new tank cars.
Four oil companies contacted by Reuters, Cenovus Energy Inc., Suncor Energy Inc, Valero Energy Corp and One Earth Oil and Gas Inc., declined to comment on Transport Canada's capacity to introduce new regulations and whether uncertainty was affecting their budget planning.
"Regulations are always in flux, so that's just an ongoing fact of life in the industry," said Brett Harris, a spokesman for Cenovus.
Fifteen percent of the jobs in Transport Canada's dangerous goods and rail safety divisions are open across the country, according to federal records obtained by Reuters. Eight of 19 engineering positions within the Dangerous Goods Division in the Ottawa region headquarters are unfilled.
In Quebec, a position for the manager of dangerous goods transportation in the rail safety division is vacant. Nationally, the vacancies include a superintendent of gas containment and several specialists on containment means for dangerous cargo.
Transport Canada said the openings are due to a combination of budget cuts, early retirements and difficulties competing with the higher-paid private sector.
Public sector engineers earn base salaries as high as C$120,000 ($105,000) but still earn about 20 percent less than in the private sector, based on salary estimates from a survey of professional engineers in Ontario.
The records show that more than 30 positions in the dangerous goods and rail safety divisions have been vacant since 2009. Some resulted from 2012 budget cuts that forced four senior engineers into retirement, including Jean-Pierre Gagnon, who had been working on a North American plan to improve standards for the DOT-111 tank cars, the type that punctured during the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.
"The challenges arising from Lac-Mégantic aren't negligible," said Jean-Paul Lacoursière, a retired professor of chemical engineering at Quebec's University of Sherbrooke, who follows the industry.
"There's still much work to be done on determining types of tank cars, (what to do with) the old generation of tank cars ... and if there's not enough people to do this work, it's going to take a lot longer."
Over the past year, Canada has introduced a series of safety regulations and has pledged to improve its oversight of dangerous goods transportation. It has improved standards for handbrakes and put restrictions on single-person crews.
Engineers are crafting new standards to improve safety and oversight of oil shipments by rail, which have jumped from 500 carloads in 2009 to 160,000 carloads in 2013, according to industry statistics.
But Transport Canada is projecting further reductions to its workforce under government efforts to eliminate the federal deficit. It estimates its overall budget will shrink from C$1.7 billion to C$950 million within three years, including about C$600,000 in cuts to the rail safety and dangerous goods divisions.
"It seems the importance of this role (of qualified engineers) was not taken into consideration when cost-cutting measures were implemented at Transport Canada," said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada labor union that represents the engineers. (Reporting by Mike De Souza; Editing by Dan Grebler)