Lac Mégantic: capitalism’s train wreck

From the new September-October 2013 issue of News & Letters:

Lac Mégantic: capitalism’s train wreck

Quebec, Canada–On July 6, around 1:15 AM, an unattended 74-car freight train filled with crude oil derailed and exploded in the center of the town of Lac Mégantic, Québec. After its brakes had failed, it rolled seven miles down a slope at a high rate of speed. The number of dead is believed to be 47, though only 42 bodies were found. The other missing five are presumed to have been vaporized by the intense heat of the fire. Half the downtown was destroyed, including public records, historic archives, and 30 historic buildings. The events revealed an unimaginable degree of corruption.

There are signs of a cover-up from many official and corporate sources.This catastrophe was avoidable with even the slightest attention to safety, and is a result of cutting corners to save money, and the lack of anyone in charge taking responsibility for any aspect of the negligence, including those in the government.

In the past ten years, the amount of hazardous materials transported through Canada by rail has increased many-fold, though it is almost impossible to get accurate statistics. The mayors of several municipalities which have freight lines running through or near them have been stonewalled in their efforts to obtain this and other information which they need to ensure the safety of people living in their areas.

The chain of negligence and criminal behavior is long. The U.S.-owned railway which operated the train, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) since 2003, is a company which buys segments of rail line considered unprofitable, and uses them for freight. In 2007, they were offered millions of dollars in 2:1 federal and provincial matching funds to improve track conditions, which they turned down. Already, Transport Canada (CT) standards for track conditions and rolling stock are lax by most standards, as are Québec provincial standards.

For one thing, both CT and the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (USFRA) allowed (not “permitted,” as the required permit process, which requires public input, was ignored) Single Person Train Operation (SPTO). Already in 2010, a former MMA engineer warned that both SPTO and 12-hour shifts were unsafe. MMA and government regulatory agencies simply chose to ignore the law. The tank cars involved had only a single shell, and had been deemed unsafe by the NTSB in 2009. But railway and petroleum interests lobbied fiercely against their replacement. These single-shell cars still make up 80% of the MMA fleet.

World Fuel Services, which is responsible for many of the cars, may be liable for some of this tragedy. Just two weeks before the accident, there was a 13,000-liter diesel oil spill on the same line, three miles east of Lac Mégantic when a single-shell car ruptured.

Other government negligence arises from the fact that though the federal and provincial governments moved the transport of hazardous materials out of the centers of major cities, they did not do so for smaller towns. Perhaps they saw human safety there as less important.

MMA first tried to lay the blame for the fire on the firefighters who responded to the explosions and fires. When that didn’t work, they tried to blame it on the engineer, for failure to set the brake properly and leaving the train on a slope when his shift ended. He was not perfect, but it is MMA that refused to provide a security guard, or any other kind of backup personnel.

It was their policy to leave their trains unattended, with the cab unlocked. Investigators have already revealed that MMA knew about technical difficulties with the train the evening before and ignored warnings.

Environmental damage is extensive, but none of the parties involved have yet taken any responsibility for it. Waterways in Québec and the U.S. state of Maine have been severely damaged. Canadian Pacific, which had a hand in the incident, refuses to pay for any cleanup, as does MMA. In Harmon, Maine, on the U.S. side of the border, protesters have picketed the offices of MMA. There is little action from the Canadian government and a lot of finger-pointing, and there is disarray, though some promise of action, by the provincial government. Prime Minister Harper and Premier Marois showed up for ceremonies and speeches, but there is little of substance coming from them yet.

What is most macabre is that proponents of the Keystone XL and other pipelines have jumped on this tragedy to support their interests in pipeline transport, which is in fact no safer.

This tragedy was entirely preventable with even the most basic attention to safety for workers, for the people living near the railways, and for their environment. Instead, it was all about saving money and profits, “cutting, cutting cutting…” costs and personnel, to quote a former train engineer. This is the nature of capitalism, the complete disregard for human life, and the lessons are not lost on the people of Canada, Québec, and Maine. During the summer, many people are out of town, and there has yet to be a mass mobilization over this in Québec, but it has left deep scars, and the outrage will not go away. We can expect changes and deep opposition all over Canada to the kind of disregard for human life that happened here. To end this kind of tragedy requires a whole new human society.

–D. Chêneville, Ti-Ouistiti, Hélène Laliberté, PJ

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