Federal Government Shares Blame for Lac-Megantic Rail Disaster
Although it was Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MM&A) Railway that received most of the public attention following the derailment last July in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, the Canadian federal government shares the blame for the death of 47 people, the spilling of at least 5.5 million litres of crude oil, destruction of much of downtown Lac-Megantic, and significant damages to the local environment.
Under intense lobbying and pressure from the rail industry in Canada, primarily Canadian National Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway, the federal government has been deregulating rail safety for several decades. This is particularly the case since CN was privatized in 1995. CN and CP have argued that the private rail industry, operating within the commercial market framework, is in the best position to manage safety on the tracks. The fact is, while CN, CP and other rail company profits have been skyrocketing and shareholders have been laughing all the way to the bank, safety corners have been cut significantly in order to enhance the bottom line. Transport Canada has all but relinquished its legislative regulatory responsibilities for rail safety to the rail companies. Rail companies have been left to inspect their own trains and tracks and monitor their own safety procedures. As Railroaded has written earlier, that’s like letting the fox guard the hen house.
In 2011, the Auditor General said, “Transport Canada has not designed and implemented the management practices needed to effectively monitor regulatory compliance” of dangerous goods transport. The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada has repeatedly recommended dozens of improvements and changes required to address the many derailments and other accidents investigated by the TSB; however, the rail industry and Transport Canada have consistently ignored these recommendations and warnings – at worst, or have relegated them to exhaustive review – at best.
Recently, wsws.org wrote, “The Quebec tragedy has given rise to a series of investigations and class-action law suits in Canada that have further revealed the consistent privileging of corporate profits over basic safety precautions by various governments and regulatory bodies. A CBC report last month revealed how freight carriers had asked the Canadian federal government to remove the requirement to inspect railcars carrying dangerous goods just one month before the horrific events at Lac-Megantic. Although the rail companies quickly withdrew their request in the wake of the tragedy, it has been revealed that for years the government has secretly granted them special exemptions from safety regulations.”
Survivors of the Lac-Megantic disaster have alleged, in a class-action lawsuit filed against the federal government, that Transport Canada: was aware of 129 accidents involving MM&A rolling stock, knew that MM&A was the most-unsafe railway operator in North America, failed to prevent MM&A from shipping dangerous goods despite knowledge of the company’s deplorable track conditions, permitted the use of a single train operator despite red flags around this procedure, was aware of previous instances where insufficient braking had been practiced on MM&A trains, and failed to ensure MM&A carried adequate accident insurance.
Sarnia, Ontario Mayor Mike Bradley recently told reporters the persistent cost-cutting and risk-taking were part of a strategy to increase shareholder profits at the expense of safety. “These railcars are rolling through the hearts of communities right across the country and the level of anxiety is very high. Transport Canada needs to become the watchdog, not the lapdog of the rail industry. My own observation from over the years is there’s almost an incestuous relationship between the industry, Transport Canada and the government of the day.” Railroaded certainly agrees with this assessment, based on our personal experiences dealing with CN, Transport Canada and federal Conservative MPs and Cabinet Ministers, where we have been unsuccessful in resolving safety issues surrounding the building of a rail yard by Cando Contracting Ltd., CN and Imperial Oil to store tank cars full of petroleum residue right next to homes and wildlife conservation areas.