This Day. 7th anniversary of Lac-Mégantic tragedy – The need to build a public authority that defends public not private interests

By Pierre Chénier

July 6, 2020 marked the seventh anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, one of the worst train disasters in Canadian history. 

On the evening of July 5, 2013, a freight train comprised of five locomotives and 72 tanker cars, unsuited for the type of crude oil they carried, was left unattended in Nantes, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. At around 1:00 am the train started to roll down the slope towards the town of Lac-Mégantic. Shortly after, 63 of the tanker cars derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic, spilling their contents and causing a series of fires and explosions of catastrophic proportions.

Forty-seven people were killed and many others were injured. Downtown Lac-Mégantic was destroyed. The Chaudière River and the lake itself were heavily contaminated by the crude oil spill. 

The people of Lac-Mégantic suffered heavy loss of life and property as well as environmental destruction because of the frenzied pumping of crude oil in North Dakota’s Bakken fields to serve the U.S. war machine and the machinations of the U.S. against sovereign nation-building projects such as that of the Venezuelan people. Suddenly, old worn-out tracks were declared perfectly suitable for such shipments, unsuitable tanker cars became suitable, and years of state-organized rail industry deregulation served rail and oil monopoly greed and prepared the conditions for the disaster. 

On this occasion of the seventh anniversary of the tragedy, the people of Lac-Mégantic held commemorative ceremonies and reiterated their urgent demands for rail safety. They have been fighting without ceasing since the tragedy of July 6, 2013 to rebuild their lives, which cannot be done without improved rail safety and without a say and control by the community over the measures that are to be taken. 

On the occasion of the 7th anniversary the city of Mégantic inaugurated an Espace mémoire, dedicated to the 47 victims.

A main demand is for a bypass track, which the federal and Quebec governments have now committed to build by 2023, so that dangerous goods will no longer be transported through Lac-Mégantic’s downtown core. Rail communities affected by train derailments – which continue to occur regularly across Quebec, Canada and the United States – are greatly inspired by the steadfastness of the Lac-Mégantic community, backed by all of the people of Quebec.

The fight of the Mégantic people and of so many rail communities is difficult and challenging as they are up against the state-organized deregulation of the rail industry in the service of rail monopolies and the oil and gas industry. They are also up against the biggest challenge of all which is that governments no longer constitute a public authority. They are a wing of the narrow private interests which have usurped the state apparatus. 

The conditions for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy were prepared during thirty years of wrecking activities by the state and the rail monopolies.

To name just a few, in the 1990s, national rail companies such as CP and CN were allowed by the Liberal government to get rid of regional lines under the hoax that they were not profitable. Some were sold to vulture U.S. companies in the business of buying and selling rail companies, which cut the workforce, did not maintain the lines and lowered safety standards. When CP got rid of many regional lines, the regional line that includes Lac-Mégantic ended up, in 2003, in the hands of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), the owner at the time of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.

In 2001, the Liberal government at the time introduced the Safety Management System (SMS), a self-regulating safety system that rail companies themselves devise and which Transport Canada merely audits and whose content is kept secret from the workers and communities with the ruse that this is to protect the competitiveness of the rail companies.

In 2012, the Harper government authorized MMA to run its trains with a one-man crew. Again the conditions that had to be met for the government to grant the authorization were never made public, under the sham of protecting MMA as a private business.

Anti-social concepts such as “risk management,” “safety as a cost that has to be balanced against the other costs companies have to pay,” and “competitiveness” have become the name of the game at the expense of the rights and safety of, and in spite of the voice of the communities.

Today, claiming these are private business decisions, the Canadian government is turning a blind eye and letting CP, for example, put maximum pressure on office workers to drive and load trains instead of hiring professionally trained locomotive engineers. Near-miss tragic accidents have been reported but this is all part of “risk management” under which everything is declared fine until tragedies happen and governments and companies express sorrow and concerns and nothing changes. Rail companies are now using inexperienced people equipped with remote control belt packs walking alongside trains to assemble and disassemble trains in yards, instead of having experienced locomotive engineers direct the operation from the locomotive itself. This has led to an increase in runaway trains.

The fact is that seven years after the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, the dangers to human life, property and the environment are even more acute due to the criminal negligence of the railway monopolies, supported by governments. They claim their overriding responsibility and most urgent task is to remain competitive with other carriers nationally and internationally at any cost, with governments taking no responsibility and refusing to hold the monopolies to account. They also claim more and more that the human factor is the cause of accidents and tragedies and that unless the process is 100 per cent mechanized, with no workers involved, rail safety will continue to deteriorate and be subject to “human error.”

Workers and communities reject this anti-social outlook and these anti-social practices. It is thanks to their activation of the human factor/social consciousness that the demand to provide real problems with pro-social solutions exists and is firmly planted as the basis for opening a path to progress. Even as workers and communities keep pushing their immediate demands for measures to enforce safety in terms of working conditions, required personnel, maintenance of the tracks, safe stationing of trains and the bypass track, they continue to suffer the daily trauma of repeat accidents because of the government’s anti-human approach to the problem. The trauma they suffer is not just post-traumatic, but the present foreboding that at any time the mischief could be repeated. 

Any authority worthy of the name must have mechanisms that enable those affected by the decisions taken to have the decisive say over what decision is to be taken, how it is implemented and how it is monitored. Governments and the narrow private interests they serve must be held to account for their anti-human, anti-social and irresponsible response to the demands of the Lac-Mégantic community. 

Lac-Mégantic was a tragic and profound eye-opener as to how the neo-liberal outlook and practice of placing all of society’s assets at the disposal of the global monopolies directly led to the self-regulation of the railways and to criminal negligence causing death and chaos, as well as joint attempts by the private owners and the government to blame the workers. The people of Lac-Mégantic have faced the tragedy with immense courage and with the support of people from all over Quebec, Canada, the U.S. and the world. All together, the people are fighting to put an end to these tragedies by empowering themselves so that they can exercise control over their lives.

On the occasion of the seventh anniversary of the tragedy, our warm salute to the Lac-Mégantic community who continue to rebuild their lives and to make an important contribution to the fight for the security of all.

(Photos: TML, La Tribune)

Citizen Action Essential to Ensure Rail Safety

Interview, Robert Bellefleur, Spokesperson for the Coalition of Citizens and Organizations Committed to Railway Safety in Lac-Mégantic, TML Weekly

TML Weekly: First of all, our best wishes to the people of Lac-Mégantic who are fighting so bravely to rebuild their lives, which cannot be done without improved rail safety. What was organized in the city for the seventh anniversary of the tragedy?

Robert Bellefleur: There were three press conferences. Of course, we held our own. The Alliance ferroviaire de l’Estrie et Montérégie, which includes the mayors of Mégantic, Sherbrooke, Bromont, Cowansville and Farnham, also held one, as did the city of Mégantic, which inaugurated the Espace mémoire, a structure dedicated to the 47 victims. It is located where the tragedy took place, on the very foundations of Musicafé. At noon, after the inauguration of the Espace mémoire, bells were rung 47 times in memory of the 47 victims of the tragedy.

TMLW: What are the challenges you are facing at this time in ensuring rail safety?

RB: We took another tour of the track and found new problems with the rails. A second formal notice was sent to Transport Canada to come and re-inspect the rails at the entrance and exit of Lac-Mégantic. On May 7, 2019, Transport Canada sent a report to Central Maine and Quebec Railway Canada (CMQR) noting 253 defective rails between Farnham and Lac-Mégantic. The company was to repair this. In August, it was discovered that a location specified in the report where the rails were defective had still not been repaired. We also produced a video showing the condition of the rails at that time.[1]

This was reported to Transport Canada and the media and two weeks later a train partially derailed at the same location. The wheels just left the track. After that, a formal notice was sent to Minister of Transport Marc Garneau and a ministerial order was issued to force the company to make repairs. That was last year. This year, we are doing the same thing. We are sending a formal notice to Garneau, a second one, to tell him that you have not repaired everything. There’s still some left. There’s a lot left. We sent him the formal notice yesterday. He now has 10 days to do a new inspection that goes beyond the standard ultrasonic inspection. Ultrasound is a method that is not completely effective when the rails are too worn because the metal no longer conducts the waves properly.

According to an expert report on the seven major derailments of oil-carrying trains in Canada that have occurred since the Mégantic derailment, which was presented in a CBC report on June 15, the condition of the rails is responsible for the derailments. This is because the railway safety regulations on which the maintenance standards are based date back to 2012, that is, before the massive transportation of oil on the rails. The regulations are written based on the old practice of regular freight trains and have not been adjusted to the new reality of massive oil transportation. So the rails wear out faster with characteristic breakages due to the overweight trains. So the Transportation Safety Board of Canada made that observation and recommended that the railway safety regulations be reviewed because they no longer correspond to reality. These regulations govern the companies and define maintenance standards. Journalists have proven that these seven major derailments since Mégantic are due to the fact that maintenance protocols are not up to date and that the trains are heavier and longer. The CMQR boasted that the weight of its trains passing through Mégantic had increased by 56 per cent.

TMLW: At your press conference, you said that the hazardous materials currently in circulation are even more dangerous than those that exploded during the tragedy. Can you tell us more about that?

RB: During the BAPE [Office of Public Hearings on the Environment] meetings in Mégantic last year, the experts who were conducting a risk study told us that the two most dangerous materials circulating on the rails are propane gas and sulphuric acid. There is nothing worse than that. If ever there is a derailment followed by an explosion of these materials, the sulphuric acid will spray into the atmosphere as a vapour and the winds will push this up to 20 or 30 km. This is much more dangerous than the shale oil burning on site. It’s ten times worse as an impact.

We see convoys of 30 tanks, where 10 to 12 cars contain propane gas and seven to eight cars contain sulphuric acid, transported by DOT-111 cars. Since the explosion at Lac-Mégantic, these cars can no longer transport oil, but they are now used to transport a product that is ten times more dangerous! We see this type of convoy three to four times a week and it runs on defective rails and culverts.

It should also be added that the trains are still parked at the top of the hill. Since there is no longer a rail yard in downtown Mégantic, the company is shunting in Nantes, at the same place where the death train was parked on July 6, 2013. It parks cars from the industrial park on the service track and when the train arrives from the United States with the dangerous material, they stop parallel to them on the main track, next to the cars to be loaded. They apply only air brakes on the slope, no hand brakes. And there they detach the four locomotives that will pick up the cars on the other track, leaving the whole train alone, on simple air brakes on the grade, from 45 minutes to one hour. That’s how long it took, when the firemen left Nantes, for the train to go down the slope in 2013. These manoeuvres are carried out two to three times a week in Mégantic. We are in the same scenario. Nothing has really changed, except that the materials are 10 times more dangerous. I have reported this twice to the City of Mégantic and Transport Canada. We also see it in the video.

All this is tolerated by Transport Canada. Yesterday, July 5, Garneau broke his silence and issued a press release to defend himself, in which he said that there have been 225 inspections of the railway track between Farnham and Lac-Mégantic since 2015, that is 45 per year. I said in an interview that either the inspectors are blind or they are incompetent and inconsistent, which I doubt, or the rules are not strict enough and are too complacent toward the companies.

TMLW: Can you explain the status of the bypass track?

RB: It’s stalled. What I have learned is that following the BAPE report in May 2019,  many questions were raised about the environment with regard to the route of the bypass as it crosses wetlands, which are protected in Quebec. The Quebec Ministry of the Environment expressed reservations on certain points and asked for clarification. And that is where it gets stuck. Transport Canada issued a ruling last year on the proposed expansion of the port of Quebec in Beauport Bay, where fish will spawn. The court ruled that Quebec has no business interfering in a federal jurisdiction. And now Transport Canada is using this ruling to say that it does not have to take into account the environmental concerns of the BAPE and the Quebec Department of the Environment.

In our opinion, the concerns raised about the environment must be treated seriously. We must consider that the bypass will cross rivers, streams, swamps and farmland. Ditches will be dug, wooden ties soaked in creosote will be installed in these ditches and it will flow into the Chaudière River.

The coalition’s opinion is that this railroad could be built with concrete ties. Concrete has an environmental impact when you make it, but once it is placed in an environment, it is inert. Look at the REM [Metropolitan Express Network] in Montreal on the south shore, they used concrete ties. [REM is a light rail rapid transit system under construction in the Greater Montreal area – TML Ed. Note] In Ontario, new railways are also built on these types of sleepers. And here we are still using the methods from the last century. It is important to know that wooden ties have an average life of 20 to 30 years, whereas concrete can last more than 50 years. Moreover, when the life of wooden ties is over, there are still toxic products in them, PAHs – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogenic. To dispose of them, you have to take them to a high-efficiency incinerator, so it costs a fortune to get rid of them.

All the pressure we’re putting on is to say that the old railroad tracks are dangerous. We’re not going to wait three years. They have to be forced to speed up the process of creating the bypass. We are told that it is planned for 2023.

TMLW: Do you want to say anything in conclusion ?

RB: In the absence of Transport Canada oversight, it is always the citizens who remain vigilant. It is citizen involvement and action that remains to ensure safety in the absence of Transport Canada’s involvement. The authorities are ignoring safety, so it is the citizens who must see to it.

We continue the fight. They said the Mégantic people were resilient. We’ll show them what resilience is!

Note

1. To view the video Lac-Mégantic, a Railroad at the End of its Life click here.  To see a video on the reconstruction of Lac Mégantic on a modern basis click here.

(Photos: TML, Maine-Lewiston-Auburne ProtestTrain Safety)

Source: TML Weekly, July 11, 2020 – No. 25

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