Lac-Mégantic Trial Update: Who’s to Blame?

Lac-Mégantic The trial of three rail employees blamed for the deaths of 47 people when a train carrying 73 cars of highly combustible crude oil derailed in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic continues to move forward.  Below are a few updates to the trial, as well as some related stories.

For those of you just tuning in, a bit of background: At around 1:00 am on July 6, 2013, the un-manned train began to roll down a hill toward the town after the lead locomotive was shut down due to a fire caused by mechanical problems. The government is arguing that Thomas Harding (the engineer and sole crew member) didn’t set enough hand brakes on the train. Two other MMA employees, Richard Labrie, 59, and Jean Demaitre, 53, are also being tried on 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death.

I have written about this tragedy here about how the workers are being blamed for what is clearly a failure of management and the Canadian government to establish and enforce safe procedures and a safety culture at the railroad. MMA has since gone bankrupt.  Trial updates can be read here and here.

A few new developments

  • Retired Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) engineer Alain Richer testified on October 30 that two days after the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe, he found another train belonging to the MMA railway parked on the tracks near Lac-Mégantic that had not been properly secured.  The 89-car train had been secured with only five handbrakes, instead of the ten required by MMA’s own internal regulations.  (After Richer reported the number of breaks applied, managers later added an additional 7 hand brakes.)As we have mentioned several times before, one characteristic of an organization with a flawed safety culture is “normalization of deviance” when people become accustomed to violations of procedures or small incidents that don’t result in catastrophe.  Clearly, parking trains without applying the “required” number of hand brakes was not an uncommon occurrence.

    A variation of this problem is managers’ tendency to ignore violations of company rules — until a violation results in an incident.  Then suddenly, it’s all hands on deck to punish the violator for a violation that would have been overlooked had no incident occurred.

  • Irving Oil, which owned the oil in the cars that crashed into the town of Lac-Mégantic, has been ordered to pay $4 million after pleading guilty to 34 counts stemming from the investigation into the 2013 rail disaster in Lac Megantic, Que.  The company was charged under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act.

The offences were committed over eight months, from November 2012 to July 2013, involving transportation of approximately 14,000 rail cars of crude oil for Irving Oil.

Following the train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, the investigation by Transport Canada and the RCMP revealed that Irving Oil had not complied with all applicable safety requirements by not classifying the crude oil being carried by trains as a dangerous good. In addition, the shipping documents on board the trains were incorrect.

The statement also says Irving Oil did not adequately train its employees in the transportation of dangerous goods, an offence under the act.

CBC News reports that oilsands production will keeps growing, and with pipelines at capacity, more crude will be transported by hazardous rail lines.  And this is not just a Canadian problem. With various pipelines not yet built (including the well-known Keystone XL, as well as the Canadian Northern Gateway, Trans Mountain, and Energy East), “Canada’s crude by rail volume could climb to destinations such as the U.S. Gulf Coast, Midwest, and East Coast.”

  • Bruce Campbell, former executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, writing at Rabble.ca, a progressive news site in Canada, also believes, like many people in Lac-Mégantic, that the right people are not on trial.  What about senior executives and directors of the delinquent company MMA, Transport Canada senior officials and the minister, Conservative government leaders, industry lobbyists, the Railway Association of Canada [RAC], a regulation-averse prime minister, deregulation by both Conservative and Liberal governments, “which systematically weakened or eliminated regulations, replacing them with voluntary codes and industry self-regulation,” and “a rail safety regime that continues to rely on human infallibility and the discredited myth of corporate self-regulation.”

    I don’t know much about Canadian government or politics, but a lot of the Campbell’s accusations resonate with the current anti-regulatory, corporate lobbyist dominated government we’re experienced down south of the Canadian border.

Blame the Worker

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