Rail Safety Concerns Incite Criminal Probe As Lac-Mégantic Derailment Death Toll Climbs

The death toll from the tragic Lac-Mégantic train derailment has risen to 15* following the recovery of more bodies from the rubble left by exploding oil tankers cars, which levelled more than 30 buildings in the centre of the small Quebec town early Saturday.

CBC News reports that "a criminal investigation is now underway as officers continue to comb through the rubble and search for some 40 people who are missing," according to Quebec provincial police Inspector Michel Forget.

Forget said "terrorism" was unlikely to be the cause of the derailment and the explosions. He didn't elaborate on the causes of the criminal probe, but said that investigators had "discovered elements" that warranted it, with "criminal negligence" being "one possible charge among many that are being considered as the investigation unfolds."

Investigators have also revealed that firefighters were called in Friday night to deal with an incident at the train in Nantes, the town where the train was parked, about 12 km from Lac-Mégantic. The train rolled downhill and exploded in Lac-Mégantic after the firefighters and an employee from the rail company left.

Nantes fire chief Patrick Lambert "said his crew received the company's blessing to leave the scene," reports CBC. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, however, countered with the accusation that "the fire crew should have alerted the engineer who by that point had gone home to sleep for the night."

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) is also investigating the derailment, and has questioned the safety of the general purpose tanker cars used to transport flammable materials like crude oil. The TSB does not assign criminal charges, but will investigate the cause of the derailment and identify "safety deficiencies."

CBC reports that Don Ross, the TSB's lead investigator at Lac-Mégantic, also showed concern at the lack of precautionary technology on the stretch of track that might have prevented an incident like this.

"This area is not equipped with the type of signal systems that would even show to a rail traffic controller that something was moving on the territory that they hadn't authorized," Ross said at a news conference yesterday.

Another TSB investigator, Ed Belkaloul, is said to have observed that "the type of train car involved in the crash, was identified as a concern by safety officials following a 1995 train derailment in Gouin, Que., that resulted in a sulphuric acid leak into a lake and the Tawachiche River."

After the 1995 derailment, the TSB warned in their report that "the carriage of certain dangerous goods in such cars might be putting persons and the immediate environment at risk in the event of an accident."

The fallout from the tanker car explosions also includes crude oil from the train leaking into surrounding waterways via the Chaudière river. About 80 km downriver from Lac-Mégantic, the community of Saint-Georges is having to draw water from a nearby lake instead of the river, which is their usual source, because of fears "that the water is contaminated with hydrocarbons," according to a separate article from CBC.

Ross added that the TSB has had "a long record of advocating to further improvements" to the "general service" cars "because they're a very common type of tank car and take a lot of very large volumes of petroleum products, like in this case, and you can see the damage that was caused here." He said that the investigation would "establish whether everything that was done here had met the requirements."

Stephen Guilbeault, head of environmental group Equiterre, told CBC that "a wave of deregulation" has allowed companies like Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway to get away with using outdated train cars, with "the federal government…very complicit in letting companies dictate the rules of the games."

Dean Beeby of the Canadian Press wrote last year that a February 2012 briefing note to Prime Minister Stephen Harper from the clerk of the Privy Council, on the potential of rail transport of crude oil, observed "that Transport Canada officials have confirmed there are no regulatory hurdles for transporting crude by rail."

Emile Therien, former president of the Canada Safety Council, who criticized rail safety regulations in 2007, clarified in a piece for the Ottawa Citizen that "Transport Canada, with overall responsibility for railway safety, conducts audits of how a railway company maintains its safety-management systems. It does not engage in the inspection of tracks and switches." Day-to-day safety regulation is left to rail companies.

Therien did also observe that "train accidents in this country have decreased by 23 per cent" since 2007, and said that Canada's rail safety in general is "improving."   

Meanwhile, in Lac-Mégantic, 1,200 of the 2,000 evacuated residents have been let back into the town, though around 800 residents are still being kept away because of work going on in the cordoned-off "red zone." The air quality in the area has been tested and confirmed to be safe, but returning residents have been advised to "open windows and ventilate their homes."

CBC says that locals "have been quick to single out [Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway] company with complaints about its lack of visibility, its safety standards." Edward Burkhardt, head of the company hasn't visited the town yet, though he's scheduled to appear today.

Burkhardt told CBC that there's "a lot of anger" from Lac-Mégantic being directed at him, and said he hopes that he's "not going to get shot."

*As of Friday, July 12, 2013, the death toll has risen to 28.

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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