The Transportation Safety Board, a federal-government agency that investigates transportation “accidents,” issued a report Aug. 19 placing blame for the disaster on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway company; on Transport Canada, the government agency that regulates rail, sea and air transportation; and on the locomotive engineer.
Transport Canada continues to deny any responsibility and pins the blame on three rail employees. The three were arrested May 12, charged with 47 counts of “criminal negligence causing death.” They face possible life sentences. Engineer Thomas Harding and rail controller Richard Labrie are members of the Steelworkers union. The third, Jean Demaitre, was manager of train operations.
The train, with 72 tank cars laden with an explosive mixture of crude oil, was parked about seven miles above Lac Mégantic. After a fire broke out on a locomotive, firemen shut down the lead engine, which slowly released the train’s air brakes. The hand brakes then failed and the train rolled downhill, gathering speed before derailing and exploding in the center of town.
The Transportation Safety Board noted earlier in the year that the rail company had filled out documents claiming the crude in the tank cars was a less explosive grade of oil than it was. The board also noted that all the tank cars on the train were an older model, known to be vulnerable to explosions.
Transport Canada allowed Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway to use the older cars in deference to company complaints that buying safer cars would cut into its profit margins. For the same reason Transport Canada gave the company permission to operate its oil trains with a single-person crew.
According to the Safety Board, transportation of crude oil by train in Canada has increased from about 500 carloads in 2009 to 160,000 in 2013. Yet the number of rail inspectors has remained the same since 2004.
In an Aug. 19 statement, the day the safety board’s latest report was released, Steelworker officials said, “It is time to stop using workers as the scapegoats.”
The union-sponsored Justice for USW Rail Workers fund has received more than $120,000 from 10 Steelworker locals, as well as the Quebec branch of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
Militant supporters from Montreal and Quebec visited Lac-Mégantic Aug. 17 and spoke with many in the town’s working-class neighborhoods. Many spoke of Harding as a hero because they say he risked his life after the derailment to uncouple five cars that had not yet caught fire, averting a larger disaster.
The Red Cross collected more than $15 million from across Quebec, but residents criticized the arbitrary manner of the aid distribution. “Because I had not lost my apartment — I was able to move back in after one month — and I was able to find another job, even though it was a seasonal job and did not last that long, I was cut off from any further help from the Red Cross,” Julie Lessard, who had worked at Dollarama, which was destroyed by the fire, told the Militant.
The explosion site, which is still contaminated, cuts the town in two, forcing a four-mile detour for many residents going to work or to shop.
Donations for the defense of Harding and Labrie can be made at www.justice4USWrailworkers.org.
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