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A massive fire sparked by the derailment of a train carrying crude oil burns in the eastern Quebec town of Lac-Megantic Saturday, July 6, 2013. (Photo: Surete du Quebec)

Corporate Profits Trumped Public Safety in Lac Mégantic

Critics of oil and rail industry say federal report shows lax oversight and disregard for community led to disaster that killed 47 people last year

Lauren McCauley

The Lac Mégantic oil train derailment that killed 47 people and nearly destroyed a small town was caused by a series of government and industry failures, according to an investigation released Tuesday. This "accident waiting to happen," observers note, is another searing indictment of the "profit before public safety" directive of the fossil fuel industry and its government backers.

Citing 18 separate factors that contributed to the July 7th, 2013 disaster, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada concluded that the now-defunct Maine, Montreal & Atlantic (MMA) Railway "was a company with a weak safety culture," which government regulators Transport Canada had repeatedly failed to audit and address.

"This report is a searing indictment of Transport Canada’s failure to protect the public from a company that they knew was cutting corners on safety despite the fact it that was carrying increasing amounts of hazardous cargo," Keith Stewart, Greenpeace Canada’s Climate and Energy Campaign coordinator, said in a statement following the report's release. "This lax approach to safety has all owed the unsafe transport of oil-by-rail to continue to grow even after the Lac Mégantic disaster. It is time for the federal government to finally put community safety ahead of oil and rail company profits or we will see more tragedies."

Among the factors identified by the investigation that either caused or contributed to the deadly crash, the report found that MMA had cut corners both in employee training and in addressing maintenance issues with the locomotive, which led to a situation where an aging engine was left running improperly braked and unattended on a hill seven miles above the ill-fated town.

"It is time for the federal government to finally put community safety ahead of oil and rail company profits or we will see more tragedies."
—Keith Stewart, Greenpeace Canada Climate and Energy Campaign coordinator

Further, the Class 111 tank cars did not meet the enhanced safety standards to transport flammable liquids and the Bakken crude oil being transported was improperly identified by the carrier.

The report notes that additionally jeopardizing the train was the reliance on a single-person crew, which MMA and the rail lobby—the Railway Association of Canada—pushed for and won despite reservations expressed by Transport Canada, according to a second analysis of the regulatory failures behind the crash put forth by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). 

The examination also found that Transport Canada "did not provide adequate regulatory oversight" and was too reliant on MMA's purported Safety Management System and thus failed to properly audit their operations to ensure that they had a functioning safety plan.

Though many have demanded that the railroad executives be held responsible for the 47 deaths, the only individuals who have been charged thus far are three MMA employees: Thomas Harding, the train conductor; Jean Demaître, manager of train operations; and Richard Labrie, traffic controller. They are being charged with criminal negligence and face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

"When this many things go wrong, it’s not a freakish coincidence," wrote the editors of the Chronicle Herald. "It’s a picture of an accident waiting to happen because a company with a weak safety culture was allowed to operate."

The editors add that the government regulatory body also failed at a time when oil-by-rail traffic is surging because of a government push to increase domestic oil production and export.

"It is one thing if there was just one or two, but the many failures contributing to the accident begs the question: was this a case of willful blindness?" said CCPA executive director Bruce Campbell, who authored the second analysis which was released one day ahead of the TSB report. Campbell's examination is particularly critical of the federal government's regulatory failures, which he says permitted the corporate negligence that caused this tragedy.

The investigation comes more than thirteen months after the Lac-Mégantic tragedy. Observers note that since that crash and deadly explosion little has changed regarding the regulation of oil trains operating in the U.S. and Canada.

"[T]he corporate profit before public safety approach is still standard operating procedure," writes Justin Mikulka on DeSmog Blog, adding, "And the oil trains are expected to return to the tracks through Lac-Megantic within a year."

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