Lac-Megantic disaster, a change in regulations that should never have been allowed to happen. Who is asking the questions?



By Ray Rivers

BURLINGTON, ON.  July 15, 2013.   It was a perfect storm.  No, I’m not talking about the spectacular rain events that knocked out the great cities of Calgary and Toronto.  I am talking about what hit the poor people of the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic.   We can’t blame global climate change for this disaster – the responsibility lies a lot closer to home.

Rail World Inc. is one of those ‘take-over’ holding companies run by a modern-day tycoon, CEO Edward Burkhard.  This rail road entrepreneur also specializes in buying up and privatizing public railroads from ideologically driven governments; running them into the ground, then selling back again for a profit.  I’ve personally ridden on the rail systems where Burkhardt’s hands were busy, ruining rail transport in the UK and New Zealand.  The formula is simple – sell snake oil, cut the bottom line, and keep cutting until the system is so bad that public outcry forces the governments to buy the rails back.

Federal regulation let this accident happen.

So one of his companies, in this case the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, used the cheapest rail cars – single hulled and easily punctured – for flammable light crude (Bakken oil).  The locomotives, hauling the cars, were so poorly maintained they regularly had engine fires, including on the night of this tragedy   Then, the company figured it could save a few more dollars by reducing its operators to one.  There would be no backup operator to take over the controls as the train ran from North Dakota to New Brunswick. 

 So there was nobody at the controls when/if the engineer went to the can, made a bite of lunch, caught a nap, or maybe had a personal incident, like a heart attack?  And how could one person have properly set the handbrakes for an overnight stop when the procedure normally required two operators?   In the evening the engineer had to leave the train for a good night’s sleep, unlocked, unattended and with the engine running so the air brakes would hold the train.

 Lac-Mégantic, with less than six thousand residents, is a part of the glue that brought Canada together into Confederation – ‘a mari usque ad mare’.   The town was built as a key juncture linking the Atlantic provinces and the rest of the country by steel rail.   So it was such sad irony that the Canadian government was complicit, negligent and ultimately responsible for nearly destroying Lac-Mégantic so many years later.  An environmental disaster, a burned-out downtown and as many as 50 people dead.  How long will it be before separatist-minded Quebecers demand the federal government relinquish jurisdiction over rail safety to the Province?

 One of the most basic roles of government is to ensure public safety.  It does this through regulation.  Yet the tanker cars, called DOT111, have long been determined unsuitable for hazardous liquids – and what is flammable oil if not hazardous.   The risk of an accident has risen sharply since far more oil than ever is being shipped by rail.   Unsafe tank cars and lots more of them…. duh?  Finally, the federal regulator, in an unusual and thoughtless move, provided approval and authority for the company to run the train with only a single operator and no back-up personnel.

 This was the worst rail accident in Canadian history and the worst disaster Quebec has ever seen.  It was a perfect storm, an accident waiting to happen, and yet also perfectly avoidable.  But isn’t that what happens when a federal government has taken its eyes off the ball – when it is more concerned about just moving cheap oil than about public safety?  

Editors note: Since penning this piece the following has taken place:

Transportation safety officials have told Ottawa to rewrite train safety rules in the wake of the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic, Que., suggesting that Canada’s current regulations are too vague and open to interpretation by railway workers that can lead to disaster.

In a pair of letters sent to Transport Canada, the federal body that oversees the rail industry, the Transportation Safety Board said more detailed rules must be created to govern the number of brakes that must be set when parking freight trains, and whether those trains can be left unattended when carrying dangerous cargo.

Ray Rivers was born and raised in Ontario and earned a degree in economics at the University of Ontario.  He taught at a university in New Zealand for a period of time and then earned a Master’s degree in economics at the University of Ottawa.  His 25 year stint with the federal government included time with Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, Agriculture and the Post office. After leaving the federal government he consulted for private sector and government clients.  Rivers completed his first historical novel The End of September in 2012.  This story about what might have happened had Quebecers voted for sovereignty association in that first referendum in 1980 is set in Ottawa and Montreal.

He has been active in his community including ratepayers groups, a food bank, environmental organizations, community journalism, policing and community associations and service clubs, churches, boy scouts, and community theatre.  He has been active politically, running for municipal and provincial government offices as well as heading executive positions with the Liberal Party and riding associations.  He developed the current policy process for the Ontario Liberal Party.

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3 comments to Lac-Megantic disaster, a change in regulations that should never have been allowed to happen. Who is asking the questions?

  • Navigator

    Can anyone say “pipeline”?

  • Roger

    There is more blame to go around. The company(ies) that shipped the oil, and the company(ies) that were to receive the oil are also to blame for this disaster and others to come. When dangerous cargo is transported the sellers and buyers of the product must ensure that the vehicles for transporting the product are appropriate and in good condition. Furthermore, that the carrier, in this case the railroad, has been determined to be competent and capable of transporting the product safely.
    The chain of custody and control must be sound, and the procedures and regulations complied with.
    The right to transport dangerous cargo through our communities comes with responsibilities to those communities. Most important of those responsibilities is to ensure safe transport.

    • Tony Pullin

      A tragic and terrible event. Much blame and many lessons to learn. Not fodder for political posturing.