Lac-Mégantic: Plus ça change

One of Canada’s worst industrial accidents ever should have sparked major reforms to rail safety. As Bruce Campbell explains in this excerpt from his new book on the disaster, that train has yet to leave the station.
Author(s): 
November 1, 2018

Illustration of a church within a small town.

Illustrations by Alisha Davidson

At 11 p.m. on July 5, 2013, a 10,290-tonne train is parked on the main track on top of a hill in Nantes, a village in the southeast corner of Quebec. The night is warm, the air still. The stars shine brightly in a cloudless sky.

The train, hauling seventy-two tank cars loaded with high-volatility crude oil, belongs to Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), a small, American-owned company. But the cargo began its journey under the charge of a much larger company, Canadian Pacific Railway (CP).

CP hauled the oil from New Town, situated atop the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, some 4,000 kilometres to Montreal. After winding its way through cities and towns in Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan, the train entered Canada at Windsor. In Ontario it travelled through numerous communities, including downtown Toronto, before arriving in Montreal on July 4. The chain of tank cars was transported to Farnham and handed off to MMA early the next morning for the 200-kilometre trip to Nantes.

The railway’s owner, 75-year-old Ed Burkhardt, is a lifelong railroad entrepreneur with a stable of freight companies in the United States and Europe. Burkhardt is likely asleep at home in Kenilworth, a Chicago suburb, secure in the knowledge that years of cost cutting, in concert with the lucrative new revenue stream of Bakken shale oil, bodes well financially.

The train is scheduled to continue the next day on its journey through Maine to its final destination: the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. The crew consists of one person: engineer Tom Harding. He’s worried by how the lead locomotive has been smoking, sputtering and spewing oil on the ten-and-a-half hour trip from Farnham, just south of Montreal. He calls the rail traffic controller at company headquarters in Hermon, a suburb of Bangor, Maine.

The rail traffic controller tells him not to worry. “Just leave it, Tom. It will settle down. The American crew will assess the problem in the morning.” An exhausted Harding sets some handbrakes. Following company procedure, he leaves the lead locomotive running so its air brakes can also be applied.

Eleven kilometres away lies Lac-Mégantic, a town of nearly 6,000 nestled in a basin beside the lake of the same name. Surrounded by rolling countryside, the town is a popular destination for hikers, cyclists, cottagers, swimmers and amateur astronomers attracted by the observatory on nearby Mount Mégantic.

The town is humming on this balmy summer night. Boats line the marina. The main street is crowded. A popular nightspot, the Musi-Café, is crammed with people. A band that reunites two popular Quebec musicians has the dance floor packed. The club is a mere 15 metres from where the train track curves sharply in the centre of town.

At 11:30 p.m., Harding leaves the train—unattended, in accordance with company policy. It was the last time he would see his train intact.

***

Map of Canada showing route of train that exploded in Lac-Megantic in 2013.

With 47 people dead, six million litres of oil spilled and the centre of a historic town charred, it was the largest disaster on Canadian soil since the 1917 Halifax Explosion. People across North America watching on TV or YouTube asked themselves: How could the government let this happen? What if the derailment had happened not in a town of 6,000 but in a metropolis like Toronto or Montreal?

The disaster was the direct result of decisions made by companies, and by governments that are supposed to protect the public. A long pattern of loosening safety standards in the name of deregulation and cutting red tape made the catastrophe in Lac-Mégantic possible.

Canadians were wrong to think their safety was being safeguarded, and they were also wrong to think things would change after the heart of a community was immolated. Many of the conditions that led to the disaster are still in place. Deregulation, along with its neoliberal sibling policies, was responsible for the inferno, but the inferno barely singed deregulation.

What’s more, those responsible were not held accountable.

As national media interest faded in the months following the disaster the community was beset by a series of cascading tragedies: widespread post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other health problems; a Texas-based legal predator who exploited vulnerable victims’ families; and the arrival of disaster capitalists pushing the narrative of creative destruction and the need for a clean slate, resulting in the unnecessary and unpopular demolition of the rest of the town centre.

In the face of these tragedies, citizen activists battle relentlessly against apathy and despair, challenging politicians, warning of still present safety risks and fighting for justice for their community. But five years after the disaster, deregulation and deference to industry are still the order of the day. As the following survey shows, reports and recommendations on safety abound. Actual improvements, on the other hand, are harder to find.

Trudeau government see-saws on safety funding

On the campaign trail in 2015, the Liberal team led by Justin Trudeau promised to provide Transport Canada with enough funding to tighten up rail safety. But since they were elected, the record of Trudeau’s Liberals on this file has been indifferent. The government’s first two years saw funding go up, then drop in subsequent years, according to the departmental plan.

Transport Canada’s overall spending on “transportation safety and security” was projected to fall by over 17% between 2018–19 and 2020–21. The department’s numbers say the number of inspectors has been hiked. But observers say the additions are mainly desk jobs, not personnel in the field, where transgressions happen.

New tank cars are coming, slowly

In July 2016, Transport Minister Marc Garneau moved up the cut-off date for transporting crude in standard DOT-111 tank cars (of the kind that failed in the Lac-Mégantic disaster) to November 1 of that year. While the move was praised by Transportation Safety Board chair Kathy Fox for highlighting “Canadian leadership” on tank car safety, there was less to the news than met the eye.

Garneau failed to mention that the CPC-1232 model—a “slightly improved” DOT-111—would still be allowed to carry crude until May 1, 2025. Then they would be fully replaced by the newly designed TC/DOT-117. Yet according to a U.S. Department of Transport report, in all of North America there were only 360 legacy DOT-111 tank cars still carrying crude oil in 2016. The vast majority of the old DOT-111 fleet was carrying ethanol, and thus was not affected by Garneau’s accelerated phase-out.

The Transportation Safety Board had warned that the CPC-1232 phaseout was too long. But an internal Transport Canada memorandum to Garneau cautioned that accelerating the schedule was not feasible considering economic realities, and that any change “would require U.S. regulatory support.” The U.S. tank car industry was pushing back strongly, claiming there was insufficient manufacturing capacity to meet a tighter deadline. Such were the limits within which Canadian regulators were permitted to reduce risk to the public.

In any case, the TC-117 is not a cure-all. As we’ve seen, the vast majority of bitumen transported by rail is in diluted form—dilbit or synbit. Highly volatile components are added to the raw bitumen to make it flow. The TC-117, while safer than existing models, is not designed with bitumen in mind. It is much safer to transport bitumen in its raw form in tank cars specially outfitted with steam coils to maintain its fluidity. However, relatively few of these specialized cars have been built, and so only a fraction of bitumen is transported in raw form. The TC-117, which is expected to carry the vast majority of bitumen into the future, is not fitted with steam coils.

Eighteen months prior to Garneau’s announcement came the two CN diluted-bitumen train derailments near Gogama, Ontario (which I describe in Chapter 11 of my book). This should have been a red flag. And if that wasn’t sufficient, more troubling was the June 2018 incident in which a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train hauling diluted bitumen from Alberta in retrofitted CPC-1232 tank cars (rebuilt to the state-of-the-art TC/DOT-117 standard) derailed near the Little Rock River, Iowa. Fourteen cars punctured, spilling over 871,000 litres of bitumen.

Safety management systems are still lagging

It fell to the Liberal government to ensure that new safety management system regulations, which came into effect just months before the Harper era ended, were properly implemented. Transportation Safety Board chair Kathy Fox, speaking to a National Railway Day conference in November 2017, complained that companies were still not taking their risk assessment obligations seriously.

“There are still railway companies that aren’t conducting risk assessments before making operational changes,” she said. “Moreover, there still seems to be an attitude of trying to justify why a risk assessment is not required by the regulation.”

Among the new safety management system regulations are those requiring that work-rest scheduling practices be compatible with the science of fatigue management. But Steve Callaghan, the expert witness at the Lac-Mégantic criminal trial that wrapped up this winter, calls these regulations “a farce.” Companies have avoided re-examining their work-rest scheduling practices simply because of the costs involved, and because regulations allow them to do so, says Callaghan. Currently, train crews are exempt from the Canada Labour Code’s maximum-hours-of-work provisions.

In 2016, company resistance and Transport Canada inaction prompted the Transportation Safety Board to put fatigue management on its watchlist for the first time, stating that Transport Canada has been aware of the problem for many years but was continuing to drag its feet. It added that sleep-related fatigue has been a cause or risk factor in one-fifth of Transportation Safety Board accident investigations over the last two decades. Transport Canada and Minister Garneau say they are on the case.

Emergency preparedness

One of the lessons of Lac-Mégantic was that firefighters, especially from small communities, lacked the training to handle such large-scale accidents. They lacked experience with specialized equipment and knowledge of available emergency response resources.

The federal government’s Emergency Response Task Force, convened in the months following Lac-Mégantic, issued its final report to the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Directorate in July 2016. It contained 33 recommendations including the following: the specification of the contents of emergency response assistance plans and company reporting requirements; the specification of inspector reporting procedures; improved outreach and communication activities, and information sharing with other departments and agencies; the additional mapping of routes of flammable liquids transported by rail; and the creation of specialized training programs. Transport Canada has made significant progress implementing the task force’s recommendations.

The jury is still out on whether these changes will be effective. In the meantime, municipal first responders and emergency planners are still being denied real-time information about dangerous goods passing through their communities.

Railway Safety Act review recycled

At the behest of Minister Garneau, an independent commission conducted an accelerated review of the Railway Safety Act. It was the first since the Harper government’s 2007 Railway Safety Act review, on the eve of the oil-by-rail boom.

The report, issued in May 2018, made sixteen recommendations. Many, such as calls for improved fatigue management, the study of electronic braking systems and that Transport Canada strengthen its capacity in the development and adoption of rail safety technology, were recycled in various forms from the previous review. Overall, the effort opted for a series of marginal recommendations, papering over fundamental flaws in the railway safety regime, above all the power relationship between the industry and Transport Canada.

But if the report was a missed opportunity, it did resurrect, if inadvertently, the problem of rail safety statistics, even if it conveniently overlooked some of the negative trends in rail safety since Lac-Mégantic.

The 2007 review noted a “widely held view that the Transportation Safety Board’s published data on railway occurrences did not provide a comprehensive or fully accurate picture of railway safety in Canada.” These statistics remain unreliable in large part because of the nonreporting of accidents. In a post-Mégantic audit, the Transportation Safety Board learned of more than 250 accidents that had not been reported between 2007 and 2013.

Illustration of woman holding flower, mourning.

Moreover, this data was not collected systematically. The Transportation Safety Board looked at seven years of CN data, but only 13 months of CP records (even that small sample showed 100 accidents). For Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the Transportation Safety Board only considered data from 2010 to 2013. It found that for every accident MMA reported in the years before Lac-Mégantic, it experienced another two that it did not report. Finally, a CN audit between 2001 and 2007 added between 200 and 400 accidents per year to the numbers.

“When Canadians ask, as many have in recent months, whether the rail transport system is ‘safe,’ they surely want to know whether the accident rate is low—compared to other countries and other forms of transport—and whether it has been improving or getting worse over time,” wrote Jennifer Winter, with the School of Policy Studies at the University of Calgary, in a sharp critique of rail safety data in 2014. “Yet the statistics that might provide the answer are worryingly inaccessible, sometimes conflicting and in certain cases not available at all.”

Freedom of information not improving

Among the Trudeau government’s promises of “real change” was a more transparent government. “Government and its information should be open by default,” wrote the Prime Minister in his mandate letter to Transport Minister Garneau.

This was a breath of fresh air for an author frustrated by the Harper government’s procrastination and lengthy delays in providing information about Transport Canada’s role in the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Yet things did not change—for this book, or overall. A freedom-of-information audit conducted by the University of King’s College concluded that the Liberal government’s performance “was even worse than in the latter years of the former Stephen Harper government.”

This is startling, given that the Harper government was considered the most secretive since the legislation was first introduced more than three decades ago. Or perhaps it was an example of something that has become mundane in the neoliberal era: regressive tactics, once discovered, stay in the bloodstream of politics even when governments change stripe.

One-for-one rule still the centrepiece of Liberal regulatory policy

The Harper government initiated a number of reforms to the way the federal government and its agencies regulate during its nine years in power. In many ways these changes followed a trend started under previous Liberal governments to align the regulatory process with the neoliberal rules embedded in today’s free trade agreements. These trade deals include strict rules forbidding regulations from being overly “burdensome” or creating costly (for business) barriers to trade and investment.

As such, governments around the world have, since the mid-1990s, aligned their internal regulatory process—the way they set environmental and public health rules, for example—with so-called good regulatory practices established at the World Trade Organization. In Canada, thanks to reforms by both Liberal and Conservative governments, all regulations must be vetted by trade officials to ensure their consistency with international trade and investment agreements. And they must pass a necessity test, meaning new rules must not be more burdensome than necessary to achieve their objectives.

The centrepiece of the Harper government’s regulatory policy, however, was the “one-for-one” rule, which mandated that regulatory agencies offset each proposed new or amended regulation by removing at least one existing regulation. One-for-one, which came into effect in April 2012, was the key mechanism for implementing the government’s little-known “regulatory budget” initiative, which defined and quantified regulations solely as a cost to business—a “hidden tax.” A metric was devised to measure progress, and an external private sector watchdog committee was established to oversee the process and ensure that bureaucrats did not stonewall the government’s agenda.

The new Liberal regulatory policy, the Cabinet Directive on Regulatory Policy, which comes into effect in the fall of 2018, is not a significant departure from the Harper policy. The one-for-one rule is still in place. A report from the Finance department’s (Business) Advisory Council on Economic Growth identifies priorities for establishing what it calls an agile regulatory system: consistency with competitiveness, innovation and business investment imperatives; and compatibility with other regulatory jurisdictions. Regulation’s impact on health, safety and the environment is not mentioned. A regulatory review of key sectors including transportation is planned for the next three years based on the report’s priorities.

The Trump effect has yet to hit

The attack of the Trump administration on regulation could fill a good-sized book, or several of them. The climate was bad for rail safety, and so was the weather. Any forward-looking effort that came up for consideration was batted back.

A case in point is the rule requiring minimum two-member crews for all train operations, proposed by the Federal Railroad Administration in the last months of the Obama administration. The railways immediately demanded that the proposal be withdrawn. Edward Hamberger, CEO of the Association of American Railroads, called it “a textbook example of unnecessary regulation

“With no data showing that one-person operations compromise safety,” he said, “there is no basis—other than anecdotal storytelling—for enacting a general prohibition on crew size reductions.”

The Federal Railroad Administration delayed issuing the final rule. Once in office, Trump immediately sent the rule back to the administration for internment in regulatory purgatory.

This was cheered by the Canadian railway industry, which has been pushing hard behind the scenes for the elimination of the post Lac-Mégantic operating rule that trains carrying dangerous goods must have at least two employees.

The same inclination affected positive train control, the remote-control satellite-based protection system long advocated by the National Transportation Safety Board. In the wake of a fatal California train crash, Congress in 2008 passed legislation setting a 2015 deadline for the implementation of the technology. It subsequently extended the deadline to the end of 2018.

A passenger train accident near Tacoma, Washington in November 2017 killed three and injured dozens more. A positive train control system would have prevented the accident (one was installed after the fact). But under the Trump administration, the deadline for across-the-board positive train control implementation has been put off indefinitely.

The Federal Railroad Administration had also imposed a rule that unit trains carrying high-hazard liquids must be operated with an electronically controlled pneumatic braking system by 2021. As I describe in Chapter 11 of my book, electronically controlled pneumatic brakes are widely seen as a quantum leap in rail safety. Again, the industry lobby, including the Railway Association of Canada, pushed back, arguing that the technology had only marginal safety benefits and would cause operating disruptions. Nevertheless, the Federal Railroad Administration upheld its rule change.

But as the Trump administration’s first year drew to a close, the Department of Transportation announced that this timeline too would be erased. Also removed were prospective regulations to address track deterioration and to require engineers to be screened for sleep apnea, which the National Transportation Safety Board had found to be a cause in at least 13 accidents it investigated.

The Trump deregulation tsunami will put intense pressure on regulators in Canada to follow suit in a downward spiral of “harmonization.” The ground has already been softened up. At the top of the Canadian American Business Council’s wish list for the NAFTA renegotiation was regulatory harmonization. Exactly the same message was sounded by the Trudeau government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth.

Canadian-based companies will argue that following Trump’s lead is necessary to maintain their competitiveness under NAFTA, given that 35% of Canadian railway revenue comes from cross-border trade, and 79% of Canada’s crude oil production is exported to the US. Public input is nominally part of the regulatory harmonization process within the bilateral Regulatory Co-operation Council, but in reality it is a closed-door business-government exercise. The larger partner is in the driver’s seat. Canada, with some exceptions, usually adopts U.S. regulatory standards, not the other way around.

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway gets a successor

Fortress Investment Group, a publicly traded New York–based investment company, won the auction for MMA’s assets in January 2014, bidding almost US$16 million. It began operations six months later.

A similar operation to Pershing Square Capital Management, which took control of CP in 2012, Fortress was named Hedge Fund Manager of the Year by Institutional Investor magazine in 2012. Fortress renamed the company Central Maine & Quebec Railway and slotted it into its transportation and infrastructure division, which also managed several U.S. railways. John Giles, a 45-year railroad veteran, was lured out of retirement and appointed CEO, again echoing the Pershing Square-CP narrative.

The company committed to investing US$23 million in track and infrastructure improvements, US$10 million of it on the Quebec leg. (The work on the American side was subsidized by the Maine and federal governments.) It also replaced all the locomotives that belonged to its previous owner. Having completed renovations by the end of 2014, and obtained the approval of Transport Canada, the Central Maine & Quebec Railway began hauling dangerous goods at the beginning of 2015.

Giles told the Bangor Daily News, “We patched up the track, and then we negotiated what we call a social compact with the city of [Lac-]Mégantic, and that was something we thought was necessary because those people had been through so much.”

Although it began shipping dangerous goods in 2015, at the town’s request Central Maine & Quebec declared a moratorium on transporting crude oil through the town. Relations were good, according to Conrad Lebrun, director of buildings and projects for Lac-Mégantic. “We have access to Central Maine & Quebec representatives,” he said. “When we need to, we call them and they call us right back and we work issues out well. We expect it to keep going in the future.”

However, in the months that followed, Robert Bellefleur and the Coalition des Citoyens were still concerned about the state of the track, which they continued to monitor, discovering signs of disrepair. The daily passage of trains carrying hazardous products—sulphuric acid, propane, sodium chloride and ethanol—through the heart of town was worrisome.

In July 2015, on the second anniversary of the tragedy, the citizen’s coalition asked independent railway expert Jacques Vandersleyen to accompany them on an inspection of the tracks. Vandersleyen was shocked by what he saw. The condition of the tracks was, in his view, unsafe for transporting dangerous goods. Transport Canada responded that this portion of the track had been inspected in May and that its experts considered it safe. The next day, the mayor requested an independent evaluation of the track.

The coalition, frustrated at the inaction and non-responses from the company and Transport Canada, sent a letter to CEO Giles in September, copied to then transport minister Lisa Raitt, with a petition from 2,600 residents asking the town council to seek an injunction to stop the company from carrying dangerous goods until it had fully completed its track repairs. The council did not, however, proceed with the injunction, nor did it undertake its promised independent evaluation of the track, given that it would cost more than $25,000.

Illustration of teddy bears and candles on train tracks.

Less than two years after it began operations in 2014, Central Maine & Quebec had more than doubled its traffic from 3,000 carloads per quarter to almost 7,000; in 2016 it posted its first profit. According to an assessment by Forbes magazine, Fortress has been a growth dynamo led by its transportation division, tripling revenues between 2014 and 2016. A Forbes analyst praised “the explosive growth potential of this extremely niche but lucrative opportunity.”

In December 2017, SoftBank Group Corp. acquired Fortress Investments for US$3.3 billion. SoftBank is a Japanese-owned global investment conglomerate that Forbes rates as the 38th largest public company in the world. Its distant, complex ownership structure would blur even further the accountability lines in the event of another catastrophic event.

A fix for Lac-Mégantic

In April 2016, Transport Minister Garneau visited Lac-Mégantic, accompanied by John Giles, CEO of Central Maine & Quebec, to assure the community that the track through town was safe and that rail safety was his number-one priority. Paul Dostie told Garneau that lost trust is hard to recover: “You talk about safety; it does not assuage me. It is like telling a child who has been disfigured by a dog to go walk the dog.”

The citizen’s coalition asked Garneau to order Central Maine & Quebec to stop switching and parking railcars at the very location from which the fateful train had run away. (The new operator was doing so because MMA’s old rail yard, destroyed in the fire, was appropriated by the municipality.) The coalition repeated its request that Garneau order the company to fix its tracks, especially because the curve where the train had derailed was now even sharper.

Garneau replied that such matters were up to the company. This did not instill confidence in the coalition, whose members renewed their efforts, with measures such as a press conference on Parliament Hill and Bellefleur confronting Prime Minister Trudeau at a town hall in Sherbrooke. Bellefleur also addressed the commission reviewing the Railway Safety Act, concluding with a chilling question: “If we tolerate such risk factors in Lac-Mégantic, the site of the most destructive railway tragedy in Canadian history, what is happening elsewhere in Canada?”

Bellefleur’s concern was based on his own continuing observations. He was driving back from the criminal trial of Tom Harding et al. late one night in October 2017 when he noticed a convoy of railcars parked on the main track at Nantes without a locomotive or a derailer. His attempt to raise this with Transport Canada eventually produced the answer that Central Maine & Quebec was not breaking any rule. On February 3, 2018, Bellefleur noticed a 50-car convoy with 29 tank cars of propane—which is highly explosive—in the same location. It was there for about 35 minutes without a locomotive, unattended, without a derail device and without handbrakes.

Government, at least, was working on one solution for Lac-Mégantic. On the morning of May 11, 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau, Transport Minister Garneau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard announced, with the gaping vacant space that had once been Lac-Mégantic’s town centre behind them, that they would fund a 12.8-km bypass around the town at an estimated cost of $133 million. Ottawa and Quebec City would share the cost 60–40.

The bypass construction will be managed by Central Maine & Quebec, and the track will be owned by the company upon completion. Ownership of the original track property, estimated to be worth less than $1 million, will revert to the government. Construction, it was said, will start in 2019 and be completed in 2022.

The mayors of the neighbouring towns of Frontenac and Nantes were critical of the selected route and proposed a modified version. Mayors of 20 communities in the region sent a letter to the provincial and federal governments requesting that they accommodate this variation. It was rejected. Bellefleur, relieved that after years of advocacy the bypass would finally go forward, was nevertheless troubled by the fact that it would create divisions at a moment that should be a coming together and healing of the communities.

Fifth anniversary bombshell

Just days before the fifth anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the Transportation Safety Board released statistics on “uncontrolled movements of rolling stock” (cars and locomotives), more commonly called “runaways.” An accompanying statement from board chair Kathy Fox reminded the government of its failure to implement the board’s post–Lac-Mégantic recommendation for additional protections against runaways, as well as its ongoing concerns with the vulnerability of older tank cars and Transport Canada’s oversight of safety management systems.

The numbers, which compared the five years preceding 2013 with the four years following, were alarming: the average annual number of runaways jumped 21%, from 48 to 58. Almost two-thirds of runaways over the entire period were caused by lack of securement. The percentage of runaways involving derailments climbed in the second period, as did the average annual number of incidents involving dangerous goods, climbing from 11 to 15.

Earlier in 2018, the Transportation Safety Board had reported 115 railway accidents in 2017 involving dangerous goods, including five in which contents spilled. This was up from 100 dangerous goods accidents in 2016, of which two involved spills. This comes at a time when Canadian oil-by-rail export volumes for June 2018 reached record levels.

All told, the numbers told a tale: The problem of runaways was itself a runaway.

***

It has been more than five years since Gaston and Pauline Bégnoche’s world fell apart on July 6, 2013. Their daughter, Talitha Coumi Bégnoche, and their granddaughters, nine-year-old Bianka and four-year-old Alyssa, were asleep in their apartment a stone’s throw from the railway tracks when they were consumed by an inferno of exploding oil. The previous afternoon, Gaston had been sitting on a bench by Lac-Mégantic with his daughter and granddaughters, playing, laughing, eating, discussing summer plans. They were the light of his life. It was the last time he would see them.

In 2018, Gaston and Pauline are still grappling with the pain and anguish of their loss. Talitha’s two sisters, Nadine and Karyne, are still grieving, trying to come to terms with the reality of their sister’s death. The family’s grief is mixed with anger that no one has been held accountable for taking away their loved ones.

Another 44 people also died that night, their hopes and dreams obliterated, futures wiped out. Two more victims followed in suicides. Twenty-seven children lost their parents. Families lost their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles. Others lost their friends, lovers, fellow workers, classmates, teammates. No one in the town was spared the grief of their loss.

Their deaths were collateral damage from the culmination of decisions stretching back more than three decades. Mutually reinforcing policies of deregulation, privatization and fiscal austerity; power relationships that subordinated government’s obligation to protect its citizens to the private interest of corporations; decisions that were driven by greed, corruption and hubris—all aligned that terrible night. The tragedy is only deepened by the sorry fact, demonstrated here and in much more detail in my book, that government has not taken appropriate steps to prevent another Lac-Mégantic.

Susan Dodd, in her book The Ocean Ranger: Remaking the Promise of Oil, warned: “Time and time again, publics trust governments to ensure that companies operate prudently. Time and again, we are shocked by a new disaster caused by corporate negligence. We say, ‘We will never forget.’ Then we forget. And then it happens again.”

Let us not forget Lac-Mégantic.

The victims were remembered once again on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, as they will continue to be remembered, with love and longing. They are:

Marie-Semie Alliance
Alyssa Charest Bégnoche
Bianka Charest Bégnoche
Talitha Coumi Bégnoche
Diane Bizier
Guy Bolduc
Stéphane Bolduc
Yannick Bouchard
Marie-France Boulet
Yves Boulet
Frédéric Boutin
Geneviève Breton
Karine Champagne
Sylvie Charron
Kathy Clusiault
Réal Custeau
Denise Dubois
Maxime Dubois
Marie-Noëlle Faucher
Jacques Giroux
Natachat Gaudreau
Michel Junior Guertin
David Lacroix-Beaudoin
Gaétan Lafontaine
Karine Lafontaine
Stéphane Lapierre
Jo-Annie Lapointe
Henriette Latulippe
David Martin
Roger Paquet
Éliane Parenteau-Boulanger
Éric Pépin-Lajeunesse
Mathieu Pelletier
Louisette Poirier-Picard
Marianne Poulin
Wilfrid Ratsch
Martin Rodrigue
Jean-Pierre Roy
Kevin Roy
Mélissa Roy
Andrée-Anne Sévigny
Jimmy Sirois
Élodie Turcotte
Joanie Turmel
Lucie Vadnais
Jean-Guy Veilleux
Richard Veilleux
Kevin Morin
Yvon Ricard


Excerpted and adapted from The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied (James Lorimer & Co, 2018). Bruce Campbell is the former director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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