The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied

by Tom Ellis

ALBANY, NY: “This book is about regulatory capture by a large corporate interest,” said Bruce Campbell. He discussed the 2013 runaway train explosion in the Quebec town of the Lac- Mégantic at the March 20 SPB dinner. Mr. Campbell is the author of The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied, published last year. He was joined by former Albany Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro, who led the struggle against the “bomb trains” in Albany earlier this decade.

Mr. Campbell brought greetings from his friends in Lac-Mégantic. He is a political economist, an adjunct at York University, and former director of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank. He said his grandfather was a railway conductor and an uncle a railroad brakeman.

He “watched in horror” the Lac-Mégantic disaster on television that killed 47 residents. He immediately noticed that everyone responsible blamed others. Shortly thereafter he began writing about the inferno. Soon he learned a colleague had lost three family members at Lac-Mégantic.

The Lac-Mégantic disaster “is a story of corporate criminality…the result of the systematic removal of vital safety regulations over decades . . . it became not a question of if but when and where.”

The fatal train came from the North Dakota shale oil fields, passed through Chicago, and arrived in Montreal with 72 oil filled cars.

He strongly criticized the work of Hunter Harrison, who implemented “precision railroading,” retired from Canadian National (CN) in 2009, and joined Canadian Pacific (CP) a few years later; and Ed Burkhardt, CEO of the Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA), a rail company that was hauling the oil to a New Brunswick refinery. MMA he said had a “terrible safety record,” did not fixing violations, and operated lengthy oil trains with single-person crews.

Tom Harding was the locomotive engineer on the train; he thought there should be a second person aboard. On the fatal trip, he saw malfunctions with the lead locomotive and tracks in poor condition. He parked the train at the top of a hill on the main track because an adjacent siding was not available, reported the engine problems, and went to a nearby hotel for the night. A locomotive fire soon started, firefighters arrived and put it out, but, in doing so, disabled the brakes.

Lac-Mégantic has 6000 residents. Many had been out that evening enjoying the hot summer weather. The train started to roll down the hill at about 1:00 a.m., derailed fifteen minutes later at 60 mph, crashed, spilled six-million liters of oil, and exploded, incinerating much of the downtown. “The historic town center is no more,” said Mr. Campbell. Nearby buildings not destroyed in the blaze were soon demolished, supposedly due to contamination. “It became a cascading tragedy,” he said, when ambulance chasers arrived and deceived many of the survivors.

He said deregulation and self-regulation became increasingly common in Canada after 1988. In 2006, Canada Prime Minister Steven Harper began a decade of paralyzing regulators. An exponential increase in oil train transport coincided with the deregulation mania. Single person trains first appeared in 2012.

Among the post-disaster improvements are that Canada banned single-person rail crews, rail car designs were strengthened, and insurance requirements enhanced, but “no decision maker in the Lac-Mégantic tragedy has been held accountable,” nor has there been any independent review of the crash.

Major safety risks remain today, he said. These include still inadequate rail car strength, inspections, and public access to information; oil volatility, the length and weight of trains, and company self-regulation. At present, oil by rail is at record levels, much Canadian oil is exported, with an increasing number of runaway trains.

He concluded with a quote from Susan Dodd, author of The Ocean Ranger, who wrote: “Time and time again, public’s trust governments to ensure the companies operate prudently. Time and time again, we are shocked by a new disaster caused by corporate negligence. We say we will never forget. Then we forget. And then it happens again.”

During the discussion, Mr. Campbell said Maine allows one-person crews and four rail workers died in the USA in the past month. Dan Van Riper said “Albany could have been Lac-Mégantic for five years…the real criminals are those who turn these trains into bombs” Mr. Campbell agreed saying the volatile materials should be removed prior to transport.

Retired Selkirk rail worker Jon Flanders spoke. He said rail workers in the US are always tired and they work at all hours. He visited Cuba several times. Cuba has five-person rail crews, they work 15 days on, then 15 off, thus having normal lives. Communities receive advance notice if hazardous materials are to pass through. No one, he said, is notified if nuclear waste or chemicals pass through Selkirk. “Another world is possible,” said Jon.

Mr. Campbell said that during the first three months after the Lac-Mégantic crash, Canadian rail owners, at first scared true regulations might be imposed, lobbied heavily and successfully “to block, dilute, and delay serious regulation.”

Lou Ismay said he has made a list of US industries that have together caused millions of deaths and injuries with no executives imprisoned. He asked,” Can we have free enterprise and no responsibility? We must speak up if we want changes.”

Dominick Calsolaro urged us to read Mr. Campbell’s book and said corporations regulate themselves in the United States. Today, he said, we have ethanol trains coming through Albany but they “do not seem to be on any one’s radar…We are probably getting as many ethanol trains today as oil trains six years ago.” He asked when was the last time we saw a news release about inspections of local tacks or trains. Rail companies, he said, oppose regulations and inspections. “We need to keep this in people’s minds.”

Victories are possible he said, citing how, when many municipalities enacted anti-fracking laws, Governor Cuomo came around and banned fracking in New York. Local governments, he said, should pass laws even if they can’t enforce them, hopefully putting pressure on the national government. He said Hudson Riverkeeper created a video a few years back showing crumbling rail bridges that cross the Hudson River. “DEC [the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.] is understaffed,” he said.

Andy Arthur said the Dunn Memorial Bridge [that connects Albany and Rensselaer] passes over railroad tracks. The bridge has sharp curves on both ends. Gasoline transport trucks traverse the bridge. “A fire on the bridge could be devastating,” he said.

Betty Head concluded the discussion saying the national disaster we should be paying attention to is the big corporations donating money to politicians.

Bruce Campbell Gets the Tour

by Susan Dubois

As described in Tom Ellis’s article in this newsletter, the speakers at Save the Pine Bush’s March 20, 2019 dinner were Bruce Campbell, the author of “The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied” and former Albany Common Council Member Dominick Calsolaro. Because Bruce was traveling from Ottawa, Ontario for the event, Susan DuBois and Lynne Jackson decided to see what other opportunities for meetings and interviews could be arranged for Bruce while he was in Albany, to heighten awareness of the problems outlined in the book. Fritz Edler, a representative of Railroad Workers United who lives in Washington, D.C., was also in town at the same time; he and Bruce have participated in book tour events together in other cities. Railroad Workers United is an inter-union caucus of railroad workers across North America.

Bruce was interviewed prior to his trip by Mark Dunlea of WOOC. Bruce and Dominick were interviewed on March 20 by Dave Lucas of WAMC, for the Midday Magazine program. The Capitol Pressroom radio program, produced by WCNY and broadcast locally on WVCR, will probably do an interview by phone with Bruce after he returns to Canada.

On March 21, Bruce, Lynne and Susan went to a meeting of the Health and Environmental Justice Group of the South End Community Collaborative, where there was discussion of both the Canadian disaster and the ongoing concerns about vehicle traffic and the rail yard at the Ezra Prentice apartments. Bruce, Fritz and Susan then met with Assemblymember Patricia Fahy and spoke about insurance requirements for railroads transporting oil, the hazards of single-person train crews, and the extent to which state governments might be able to enact legislation on these subjects. That evening, people from Save the Pine Bush and other organizations got together with the out-of-town visitors for dinner. On March 22, Bruce, Fritz and Susan met with Rep. Paul Tonko who appeared quite interested in what Fritz and Bruce were saying about how de-regulation and changes in the railroad industry have decreased safety.




Published in April/May 2019
Save the Pine Bush Newsletter