Eight years later, no justice in Lac-Mégantic

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The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in 2013. Image: Transportation Safety Board of Canada/Flickr

On July 6, 2013, a runaway train loaded with highly volatile Bakken shale oil bound for the Irving refinery in St. John, New Brunswick derailed and exploded in the town of Lac-Mégantic, nestled in the southeast corner of Québec.

It was the worst industrial disaster on Canadian soil in over a century.

Eight years after this terrible tragedy, the wounds are still raw. Ongoing environmental, physical and post-traumatic health issues afflict members of the community.

Eight years later the citizens of Lac-Mégantic have still not been accorded the justice they seek and deserve.

To mark the anniversary, a demonstration is being held near the curve where the fateful train derailed. The organizers -- the Lac-Mégantic Coalition for Rail Safety -- are demanding an independent inquiry, which still has not been held, and a permanent moratorium preventing oil trains passing through the town.

Conservative and Liberal governments repeatedly refused to hold a commission of inquiry. Neither Transport Canada nor the railways wanted uncomfortable details of their operations, oversight and accountability to come to light. No politicians, senior government officials or industry executives have been held to account.

Parliamentary investigations into the Lac-Mégantic disaster, under majority governments, were given limited mandates.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigation and that of the Auditor General were limited in scope. Moreover, the TSB investigation left many unanswered questions.

Subsequent civil and criminal proceedings were settled behind closed doors with the exception of the criminal negligence trial against three front-line workers. And in that trial, no government, industry or company decision-maker was called to testify.

The citizens of Lac-Mégantic deserve to know the truth about what happened, why it happened, and who was responsible.  The relationship between a powerful industry, which in effect regulates itself, and an under-resourced and a deferential Transport Canada resulted in multiple regulatory failures that contributed to the disaster. They need to be brought to light. I have written extensively about the capture-complicity relationship between the regulator and the regulated industry.

Although an inquiry cannot bring criminal or civil indictments, it can compel witnesses to testify under oath and be cross-examined; it can make a determination of misconduct and assign blame against individuals or organizations.

Importantly, an inquiry provides an opportunity for those affected to tell their stories for the record, and to help heal their wounds.

Finally, an inquiry can make recommendations for improving the rail safety regime, to help prevent the recurrence of another Lac-Mégantic.

The long-promised rail bypass around the town still has not begun construction.

The rebuilt curve where the fateful train derailed is more dangerous than the original, and trains carrying dangerous goods continue to pass through day and night.

CP Rail, which recently bought the rail line that passes through Lac-Mégantic, has been put in charge of the planning, specifications and construction of the 12 km bypass. Paid for entirely by the Canadian [60%] and Québec government [40%] including the acquisition of properties that the route traverses, CP will take ownership of the bypass once completed.

The federal government has committed repeatedly to construction beginning a year from now, and the deadline for completion of the bypass by the 2023, the tenth anniversary of the tragedy. However, the CEO of CP Rail, Keith Creel, in a letter to the transport minister  stated this deadline was unrealistic. Apparently, CP, which still hasn't completed its feasibility evaluation of the route -- is in control of the timeline for a bypass the community has been awaiting for far too long -- and which it will own gratis.

CP Rail continues to deny any accountability for its role in the disaster

To add insult to injury, CP Rail is still in court seeking to evade its responsibility to contribute to the class action fund for victims, as well as clean-up costs incurred by the Québec government.

Moreover, it has managed, on a technicality, to squirm out of the wrongful death suit filed in U.S. court. According to victims' lawyers, CP has escaped liability after having covered up which of its U.S. subsidiaries was responsible -- namely, the obscure Soo Line based in Minneapolis.

By using the plaintiffs' failure to name the correct subsidiary initially, CP convinced the court to throw out the case. According to the plaintiff's attorney, CP has a long history of using its "obscure web of corporate affiliates" to get out of trouble and play games with the courts.

CP's pernicious behaviour should come as no surprise. Former CEO of Hunter Harrison pioneered the cost-cutting operating model known as Precision Scheduled Railroading.  Its main axiom: company profits and shareholder value before all. Current CEO, Keith Creel, is Mr. Harrison's best-known protégé.

CP Rail is a textbook example of UBC law professor Joel Bakan's depiction of the fundamental character of the corporation in his book The Corporation and its sequel The New Corporation -- "the pathological pursuit of profit and power."                       

As I wrote in my book on the disaster: forty-seven people died that night, their hopes and dreams obliterated, futures wiped out. Two more victims followed in suicides. Twenty-seven children lost their parents. Families lost their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles. Others lost their friends, lovers, fellow workers, classmates, teammates.

Their deaths were collateral damage from the culmination of decisions stretching back almost four decades. Mutually reinforcing policies of deregulation, privatization and fiscal austerity; power relationships that subordinated government's obligation to protect its citizens to the private interest of corporations; decisions that were driven by greed, corruption and hubris -- all aligned that terrible night.

The citizens of Lac-Mégantic have waited too long. Justice delayed is justice denied. The time is now to render them justice.

Bruce Campbell is a former executive director of the CCPA. He is currently a research associate at the CCPA, an adjunct professor at York University (Environmental and Urban Change) and a senior fellow at the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University.

This article was first published in The Monitor.

Image: Transportation Safety Board of Canada/Flickr

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