Guy Crittenden
Editor-in-Chief of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine, Canada's magazine on all issues related to waste management, recycling, composting, processing, hauling and disposal.

May 15, 2014

Something disturbing in Lac-Mégantic charges

Photo from the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster that claimed 47 lives.

Photo from the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster that claimed 47 lives.

When I first saw the newspaper headline that charges have been laid in regard to last year’s tragic train derailment in the Lac-Mégantic that killed 47 people, I could barely wait to read the details of the story. It turns out these concern criminal negligence on the part of three men: train operator Thomas Harding, plus Jean Demaitre and Richard Labrie, who were both railway traffic controllers. The men are now out on bail after each posted $15,000. Criminal negligence that causes death can result in a jail sentence of up to life imprisonment in Canada.

While I’m happy that someone is going to be held legally accountable for the disaster and loss of life, I’m not at all convinced that the right people have been arrested. I hasten to add that there may be evidence about which I’m unaware, and maybe these guys have blood on their hands, but then again, maybe they don’t.

I won’t rehash the details of what happened that fateful night and Harding’s role. (You can read the digital archive edition of the Fall 2013 HazMat Management magazine to learn all about that.) It may be that Harding didn’t set enough hand brakes to prevent the train from rolling, and/or it may be that firefighters turned off an engine when a small fire broke out under one of the cars, thus releasing a brake system that required this power. It’s probably fair to include Harding in the list of people charged, and he may prove to be guilty and he may be acquitted. I don’t know anything about the other two gentlemen.

But the thing that disturbs me is that no one higher up in the company has been charged, at least not yet. Those cars were loaded with oil that was much more explosive and flammable than regular crude oil. The material was more like gasoline than bunker oil, yet the train manifests listed the contents as the less flammable material. The oil came from processors in the Dakotas and was destined to the customer — Irving — in Atlantic Canada. Someone fudged on the manifests, possibly to save money or avoid greater emergency prevention steps. Whoever did this or approved it is (or may be) as guilty of criminal negligence as the operator of the train and the switches. What about the executives of the company, who lobbied the government for lax standards whereby a single person could operate the train and shut it down for the night? (MMA had been granted the right to do this shortly before the accident.) Those people should be in the dock, too.

There’s something very unseemly about the “swat team” takedown that the police used to bring Harding in, handcuffing him on the ground in front of his family as though he’s some high-risk gunman who’s just been located. Heck, the guy had offered through his lawyer to turn himself in anytime.

It’s good that the wheels of justice are turning, but it’s possibly we have a runaway justice train, just as we had a runaway oil train in Quebec last year. Or, to mix metaphors, the enlisted men are being arrested for a show trial, while the officers who are ultimately accountable are being let off the hook. I hope I’m wrong about this, but I do hope charges against upper management are laid at some point in the near future. I hate to think front-line workers are being made scapegoats for a system that was rotten from the bottom to the very top.

Here’s the short news item that appeared on our website, minus the video that you can watch in the original version here.

47 criminal charges laid in tragic Lac-Mégantic derailment

Historic case heads to court

By: HazMat Staff

Nearly a year after the tragic oil train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Québec, three employees of the defunct rail operator are facing 47 counts of criminal negligence, one for each person that died in the fiery July 2013 explosions.

The Québec provincial prosecutor’s office filed the charges on May 13, 2014 against Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd., and its former employee Thomas Harding, the train’s operator, as well as Jean Demaitre and Richard Labrie, who were the railway’s traffic controllers. Although the railway went bankrupt, and is due to be sold any day now, the government still considers it a legal entity.

Near midnight on July 6, 2013, the train’s locomotive was shut down after a small fire, which led to the train’s air brakes losing pressure and eventually giving out, crash investigators determined. The runaway train rolled downhill for 12 kilometres towards Lac-Mégantic, and then derailed. At least five oil tankers exploded, levelling 30 buildings and killing 47 people.

The total environmental cleanup of the crash site could end up costing between $200 million and $500 million based on early estimates.

The men are now out on bail after each posted $15,000.

Criminal negligence that causes death can result in a jail sentence of up to life imprisonment in Canada.

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