Almost eight months since the terrible rail tragedy at Lac-Mégantic, most questions about its causes and responsibility remain unanswered.
Why did Transport Canada allow the company, MMA, to operate its trains with one-person crews — a major contributing factor to the accident?
A Radio-Canada investigation by Enquete has shed new light on the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring that gave MMA its exemption from the two-person crew rule.
MMA applied to Transport Canada in 2009 for permission to operate with one-person crews as it was doing across the border in Maine. Transport Canada officials opposed this request because of the company’s history of safety violations.
A year later, a Transport Canada audit of MMA revealed major deficiencies in its performance and procedures, including train inspections and brake tests.
Yet MMA returned with the same request in 2011. Transport Canada’s Montreal officials again opposed the request saying, “We consider that this major change in its operations would expose the crew and surrounding communities to greater risk.”
At this point the CEO of MMA’s Canadian subsidiary wrote to the industry lobby, the Railway Association of Canada, complaining about Montreal office opposition. A senior RAC official promised to “make some calls.” This intervention apparently succeeded because MMA got permission in 2012 — over the objection of public servants and the union — to run its trains with one-person crews.
Who made this decision and on what grounds?
The Enquete investigation also exposed Transport Canada’s failure to impose sanctions on MMA for its numerous safety violations and for allowing the company to maintain clearly insufficient handbrake application protocols. Why?
Why, despite three auditor general reports citing inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement of which MMA was a glaring example, has Transport Canada still not committed the necessary resources to rectify this situation?
Transport Canada’s rail safety division budget was cut by 19 per cent from 2010 to 2014 and frozen until at least 2015-16. The transportation of dangerous goods budget has been frozen since 2010.
Staff cuts resulted in the disappearance of valuable expertise in the transportation of dangerous goods and caused the interruption of a review of DOT-111 tank car safety.
The recent federal budget contains no increase in regulatory resources.
To my knowledge, as of mid-September 2013 there were 35 transportation of dangerous goods inspectors for all modes of transport.
Meanwhile, crude oil shipments increased from 500 carloads in 2009 to 160,000 in 2013. They’re projected to double by the end of this year.
This is the equivalent of one inspector for every 4,500 carloads of crude oil, up from one per 14 in 2009. By the end of this year, it will be one per 9,000 carloads.
Why did Transport Canada — despite repeated Transportation Safety Board warnings that DOT-111 tank cars, which punctured and exploded at Lac-Mégantic, were unsafe for transporting crude oil — not take strong measures to mandate their replacement?
An internal 2012 memo reveals Transport Canada was unconcerned about the increase in DOT-111 oil rail traffic.
Since the accident, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt has been noncommittal regarding their replacement. In December, Transport Canada proposed regulations for improvements to new tank cars, which simply formalized the two-year old industry standard.
On Jan. 13, 2014, after the derailment in Plaster Rock, N.B., she reportedly stated that DOT-111 tank cars were not a cause for concern. “These cars are safe.”
Ten days later, the Transportation Safety Board and its U.S. counterpart issued a joint statement calling for swift action and tougher standards for tank cars.
“Clearly, based on the science in Lac-Mégantic, these materials should not be carried in class 111 tank cars,” said chair Wendy Tadros. “A long and gradual phase-out of the older model cars isn’t good enough.”
Irving Oil, to its credit, has taken steps to rapidly phase out these older cars. However, the petroleum lobby — the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and its American counterpart — is advocating against rapid transition to safer cars on the grounds that extra costs would disrupt shipments of oil to market by making rail transportation less competitive.
In the face of such resistance, it could take months, if not years, to bring in new regulations, and a decade to upgrade the entire North American tank car fleet.
Will Lac-Mégantic trigger the fast-track replacement of DOT-111s? Or will the minister buckle to industry pressure? The influence of Big Oil over this government does not engender optimism.
The investigations underway will not satisfactorily answer these and other underlying questions.
Only an independent inquiry — free from political interference, with the ability to subpoena witnesses, hold those responsible to account and compel measures to prevent future accidents — can get to the truth behind Lac-Mégantic.
Bruce Campbell is Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of The Lac-Mégantic Disaster: Where Does the Buck Stop?
This op-ed was first published in the Toronto Star.