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In the aftermath: answers, or more unanswered questions?

After such a tragedy, where people died or were forcibly evacuated, it is only natural to inquire how could this happen and whose fault was it. As details are starting to emerge, it becomes clearer and clearer that government idiocy and lack of foresight have played an important role in the tragedy. The very reason of zoning - i.e., dividing the city in areas with specific purposes, such as residential, commercial and industrial - is to ensure quality of life for its residents and make the city manageable. Residents do not want industries close to them for pollution and safety reasons. City officials do not generally permit industrial sites next to residential areas because elected representatives fight for their voters and help the respective citizens make their views known. Yet every now and then, elected representatives fail to represent those who voted them into office and don't do the job they were elected to do. This is how such disasters have a chance to happen.

News coverage

First of all, the lack of coverage of the story is appalling. It almost seems like the local mass-media waited for approval from the Chinese Embassy before rushing, hours after CNN, to cover the story. On CBC's story page, linked in the first article on this topic, Pe-Bo stated:
RichHelms wrote:
"Nice of CBC to finally cover the story at 8:28 am. CNN had a new flash on it before 6 am. "
OK Rich, I know it's a posting passtime to fault CBC at every opportunity, but let's be fair here, every local news service dropped the ball on this one. None, not CTV or CITY TV or Global had mention of this on their websites until very recently. CP24 had a ticker-tape headline at about 5 am but no clickable link to a story.
Additionally, CBC Radio One was the first to report the event mention the event on its hourly news shortly after the first explosions.
And welcome to the 21st nearly always gets video before news services nowadays.

CBC managed to include a section of user-contributed photos and descriptions of the nightmare while the National Post quoted a few residents. YouTube has its own collection of clips uploaded by users, one such collection being displayed in our original article on the Toronto propane blast. Spacing Toronto has a collection of news headlines relevant to the explosion.

City Response

According to the National Post, the fire department responded swiftly and the fire claimed the life of the district chief, Bob Leek as well as that of a Sunrise Propane employee. The 12000 residents were then evacuated from an area of 1.6 km around the site and Canada's busiest highway was closed, along with several subway stations. The evacuation was most likely caused by asbestos which was found all around the area. The response was quarterbacked by city manager Shirley Hoy and her deputy, Richard Butts. They coordinated the EMS, fire and police. The media link is normally the Mayor, presently still David Miller. As he was away in holiday in Vancouver, this task was fullfilled by Shelley Carroll a deputy mayor and Miller's closest ally. Ms Carroll is known to our residents as the most vocal proponent of the Jane & Sheppard housing project, a project opposed by our association, sponsored by various levels of government and declared racist and apartheid-inspired by the African Canadian Legal Clinic.

The evacuees were housed at York University. On Sunday at 7 p.m., Toronto Police and Shelley Carroll gave their OK for the residents to be allowed in their homes, only to be prevented from returning, steps from their entrance, causing anger and resentments. The Mayor later explained that asbestos was found again and more clean-up was needed. Residents were eventually allowed back home in batches. The Mayor promised a review of zoning by-laws, even though the city did not have the authority to license the facility.

A little history

How did this situation appear? In two excellent articles, John Barber digs out the truth: 1, 2. It turns out that in the early 90's, the unamalgamated municipalities that made Toronto fought hard to be able to regulate and inspect propane facilities. Tough bylaws were passed, but the industry fought back and won an Ontario Court of Appeal judgement in 1995 that quashed a tough City of York bylaw. The judgement was given after the province intervened in the case on behalf of the industry and against the City. The amalgamated City of Toronto completely gave up and removed any last remnants of similar bylaws in 1999 and at the OMB. Toronto has failed to develop a harmonized zoning law 10 years after amalgamation and it is still governed by no fewer than 41 zoning laws.

The Harris provincial government privatized the inspection of propane facilities in the wake of the Walkerton tragedy, defying common sense. The provincial legislative body passed the Technical Standards and Safety Act, which put "Colonel Sanders in charge of the chickens", as Jim Bradley, an opposition MPP described the new act. The people in charge with inspecting the propane facilities are directly financed by the propane industry, much like Anderson was financed by Enron. Brian Patterson, president of the Ontario Safety League, has also decried the fact that some of the best experts in fire prevention are not allowed to inspect the facilities under this legislation. Whatever the cause of the latest tragedy proves to be, that can't last. "Facilities that require enhanced fire protection should be inspected by the fire department." Mr. Patterson said. "It seems pretty straightforward."  (...)

The early bylaws emerged following the 1986 explosion of a propane refuelling station in Weston. But the province joined the propane industry in an ultimately successful attempt to kill them off in the courts and at the Ontario Municipal Board. To placate propane-phobic municipalities in the meantime, former Consumer Minister Monte Kwinter struck an expert committee to devise a "model bylaw" for propane-handling facilities in Ontario.

If that committee ever met, there is no mention of it in the public record. Milt Farrow, a retired civil servant Mr. Kwinter nominated to the committee, said yesterday that he had no recollection of such a thing. No model bylaw restricting propane ever emerged.

Today, as local MPP for the riding where the blast took place, Mr. Kwinter is leading the chorus of those blaming the city for allowing a propane farm next to a residential neighbourhood. This is the same person who once led provincial attempts to quash municipal bylaws that would have disallowed many if not most of the propane installations that, thanks to provincial policy, have since sprung up all over the city.

The same person who forgot his promise to create a better bylaw the moment he uttered it. Not a Harrisite, just a Queen's Park veteran.

His colleague, Mr. Bradley, should take greater care the next time he plays Cassandra.

TSSA has not inspected the location of the blast since 2005, when it opened. TSSA released a list of the 22 GTA locations licensed for more than 5000 gallons of propane.

Allegations, Recriminations and things left unsaid

There is a lot of anger and disappointment directed at the officials. There were persistent questions regarding how and why was it possible for such a dangerous facility to exist and operate within meters from a residential neighbourhood. Many wonder if Sunrise will survive this scandal. Shopekeepers scout the empty, desolate streets and survey the damage. The emotions were high, and they boiled over at a meeting. As residents were asking questions, or "venting", as Shelley Carroll said, councillor Augimeri yelled "Shut Up!" (1, 2, 3).

Lessons Learned

  • There clearly is a communication problem.
  • It is ridiculous that people learned about this from CNN while the local media, including CBC, was eerily silent.
  • The residents were moved around with no clear directions or explanations.
  • Residents were then "allowed" to return to their homes only to be turned around in front of their gates.
  • As expected, the various levels of government play ping-pong with their responsibility.
  • Local politicians seemed to have been far more atuned to the needs of the community prior to amalgamation than after.
  • Larger political entities (the province and the amalgamated city) are more sensitive to lobbying than smaller ones (the municipalities).

This is why the explosion at the "Sunrise" plant was not just an industrial failure, but more so a failure of proper planning.

[tags]responsibility, corruption, government idiocy[/tags]


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