The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster’s fallout

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on April 25, 2019

Author Bruce Campbell (left) and playwright Len Falkenstein at the Mayworks Festival opening event at Conserver House in Fredericton on April 24. Photo by Susan O’Donnell.

During Earth Week, talk of oil, pipelines, trains and community and environmental tragedy filled Conserver House.

As the original location of the Fredericton Public Library succumbed to the flood waters on April 24, the headquarters of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, New Brunswick’s oldest environmental organization, played host to a multifaceted event around these themes.

In the evening’s first act, Len Falkenstein, UNB Director of Drama, gave a public reading from his award-winning play Lac/Athabasca, an important piece written in response to the rail disaster. Lac/Athabasca toured in Canada after its premiere and has since been published. Talented local actress Rebekah Chassé joined Falkenstein for the reading.

Previous to the 2013 disaster, Falkenstein had been thinking of writing a play about the Athabasca oil fields. When the Lac-Mégantic disaster occurred, he told the audience he “was struck by the fact that the oil was destined for the Irving oil refinery” and “felt a personal responsibility,” as a New Brunswicker, for the catastrophe.

In the second part of the night, Susan O’Donnell, principal investigator of the Rural Action and Voices for the Environment (RAVEN) project (one of the event organizers), introduced Bruce Campbell, author of The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied, who gave a public presentation on his book.

For several decades previously the executive director at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Campbell is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at York University and author of three major reports on the Lac-Mégantic incident. Campbell has been touring with his book since January and presented the book on April 23 in Edmundston. He says that his friends from Lac-Mégantic “trust [him] with their story.”

Campbell reviewed the tragic events of July 6, 2013.

When engineer Tom Harding made the ill-fated trip as a single operator hauling an 72-unit oil train, he was also having problems with his locomotive. The trip took much longer than usual, and after he parked the train in a small town on a steep hill near Lac Mégantic, the lead locomotive suffered a fire.

Following a series of coincidental oversights – including the removal of the air brakes when the firefighters switched off the engine, the train moved on its own and started barreling towards the town of Lac Mégantic, reaching a speed of 105 km/h when it crashed.

The train was almost two kilometres long but only nine cars didn’t derail. Six million liters of oil were spilled, the largest land-based oil spill disaster in North America. Each of the enormous blasts were “one-sixteenth the size of Hiroshima,” images later on controversially exploited by Netflix in one of its series, until public protest caused their removal.

The downtown of Lac-Mégantic still hasn’t been rebuilt to this day. However, beyond the physical infrastructure, Campbell outlines in his book “the environmental health trauma,  PTSD,” “the ambulance chasers,” and the controversial “disaster capitalists who persuaded people to raise a new modern center” in Lac-Mégantic.

At the time the incident happened, Campbell realized that “no one was taking responsibility. They were blaming Tom Harding, the locomotive engineer.” At a more personal level, Campbell’s “close work colleague lost three members of her extended family.” These aspects led to Campbell looking into this accident more closely, both for his formal reports and in researching this book.

For Campbell, “deregulation, austerity and privatization coincided” to cause this catastrophe. In his book, Campbell presents the political processes that caused each of these conditions and he outlined them for the Fredericton public.

Deregulation started under Brian Mulroney’s government (1984-93), according to Campbell, “culminating with rail companies regulating themselves.” The volume of rail transport of oil increased exponentially from 2009 to 2013, going from 500 to 160,000 carloads, while the rail safety budget was reduced by 27%. The growth of oil by rail quickly became “a Hobbesian choice” because of the variety of dangers present for the regulators.

Privatization of the rail networks was also a major issue in the disaster. Canadian Pacific (CP) is “one of the major transporters of Bakken crude,” from the area around the U.S. border with Saskatchewan. Hunter Harrison, the CEO of CP, had years before been head of the Canadian National rail network, and he made major cuts to both railways. Because of this, “the tracks were in terrible shape.”

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) was, according to Campbell, “a delinquent railway” which had major problems, “much like Harrison[‘s CP], but on a smaller scale.” If the disaster had not occurred, the last leg of the trip to Saint John was supposed to be made on the NB Southern Railway, owned by the J.D. Irving. As a result of charges related many previous trips that the railway had made on this line prior to the disaster, Irving’s New Brunswick Southern recently reached a plea deal to violations of the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act.

The situation for rail transport of oil got so dangerous that it was “not a question of if but when and where” a disaster would happen because “massive trains were hauling crude with a single operator.” Once all these changes happened, local regulators, union leaders, and mayors “wanted to have no part of” the problematic decisions to let the trains travel.

Until now, “no one [from these railway companies] has been held accountable.” However, $460 million was awarded in the Civil Suit, paid by the defendants, including Irving Oil that paid $75 million, the same amount as the Canadian government.

After the disaster, both Transport Canada and its U.S. equivalent put up “a wall of silence” and implemented “a flurry of safety measures,” of varying effectiveness. They “prohibited single person crews,” a measure that is still in place, and got rid of the unsafe rail cars for transporting crude. Retrofitted rail cars have had accidents recently so Campbell doubts the effectiveness of this measure.

Three MMA employees, including the locomotive engineer, were eventually found not guilty by a jury and “no one in industry or at Transport Canada was held responsible.” There are a lot of questions left to answer and then Prime Minister Stephen Harper as well as the current government have refused to hold a public inquiry on the disaster’s causes despite the Quebec Legislature unanimously “urg[ing] the Federal government” to hold a public inquiry. There is currently a Coalition des citoyens et organismes engagés pour la sécurité ferroviaire de Lac-Mégantic [Coalition of people and organisms engaged for rail safety in Lac-Mégantic] petition circulating in favour of the public inquiry.

According to Campbell, “there are major safety gaps that exist” while “exports of oil by rail are at record volumes. Most of it is going South to the U.S.” For the author, “the window is still open for history to repeat itself” so the 47 victims of the Lac-Mégantic disaster must not be forgotten.

This event, along with being a feature of RAVEN’s Earth Week events, is also a Mayworks Fredericton event. For more information on those events, please see the NB Media Co-op’s event calendar.

Sophie M. Lavoie writes on arts and culture and is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board.

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