In wake of Lac-Mégantic disaster, why do circumstances that led to crash still remain?

Aerial view of Lac-Mégantic derailment site. Photo: National Transportation Safety Board/Wikimedia Commons

With Donald Trump attacking the mainstream media, I find myself warming to it as never before -- and thereby losing sight of its many failings.

It gives abundant coverage to celebrities and powerful people, while giving short shrift to issues that threaten the planet, and dropping important stories after a short burst of attention.

I'm reminded of these serious failings after reading Bruce Campbell's magnificent new book, The Lac-Megantic Rail Disaster, which not only vividly captures the horror of the 2013 derailment inferno that killed 47 Quebecers, but also shows how little Ottawa has done to prevent a similar catastrophe from happening again.

How is it that a preventable tragedy of this magnitude, which received huge coverage and political attention at the time, has passed into media and political oblivion -- even though the circumstances that led to the crash remain essentially unchanged?

As Campbell meticulously documents, the crash of that runaway train, with 72 cars carrying almost 10,000 tons of highly combustible oil, was rooted in dozens of decisions by Canadian political leaders that reduced Ottawa's role in overseeing rail safety -- all in the name of making things easier and more profitable for the rail industry.

Although deregulation mania reached a peak under Stephen Harper's Conservatives, Justin Trudeau's government remains committed to weakening, removing or blocking regulations that annoy business, despite signs of ongoing safety problems. Recent figures from the Transportation Safety Board, for instance, show a 21-per-cent average annual increase in runaway trains in the years since the rail disaster.

And let's not forget that train sped through Toronto before crashing in Lac-Mégantic. Similar kilometre-long trains, laden with oil, pass directly through the heart of Toronto daily.

The Lac-Mégantic fire soared to 1,650 C; water streaming from fire hoses simply evaporated in the intense heat. There were no injured survivors; everyone engulfed in the flames in the little town died. If a derailment like that happened in Toronto, the toll would be in the thousands.

Another key factor leading to the disaster was the enormous boom in transporting oil by rail, which skyrocketed in Canada from 500 carloads in 2009 to an incredible 160,000 carloads in 2013 -- even as the rail safety budget was reduced, notes Campbell.

After the 2013 disaster, oil by rail declined for a while, but is now back with a fury -- and is projected to soon reach a level almost three times higher than 2013, says Campbell.

And, no, the answer isn't more pipelines. The answer, for God's sake, is proper regulation of our railways -- and every other aspect of our economy that requires government oversight to protect us from corporations whose only interest is bottom-line profits.

Above all, the Lac-Mégantic tragedy is a story about increasingly aggressive corporations in the era of hedge funds and bare-knuckle profiteering, and about the supine governments that acquiesce to their demands.

We've allowed ourselves to be lulled into believing we're safe. After all, there are government agencies out there with reassuring names like the "Rail Safety Directorate" and the "Transportation of Dangerous Goods Directorate."

But these agencies have been largely stripped of their regulatory muscle, and now operate under political masters who've drunk the Kool-Aid of a new dogma: that corporations should regulate themselves, and that the proper role for government is to "get out of the way."

That was the foolish thinking that led to the disaster in Walkerton, Ont. A judicial inquiry blamed cutbacks and lax oversight by Mike Harris' Conservative government for seven deaths and 2,300 illnesses from contaminated water. Shortly afterwards, Harris resigned.

In the more serious Lac-Mégantic tragedy, there was no public inquiry. Three railway workers were tried for criminal negligence, and acquitted. Outside the courtroom, someone yelled: "It's not them we want."

Stephen Harper and his government were never held accountable for their reckless cuts and deregulation. Nor were the greedy rail barons who pushed -- and continue to push -- for relaxed safety laws.

Five years later, they're scot-free, while 27 children in Lac-Mégantic are without parents due to the catastrophe.

Meanwhile, later today, a massive train loaded with highly flammable oil will be barrelling through Toronto. Let's hope our luck holds.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her book Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths was among the books selected by the Literary Review of Canada as the "25 most influential Canadian books of the past 25 years." This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: National Transportation Safety Board/Wikimedia Commons

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