by Barry Weisleder
Lac-Mégantic fell victim to a deadly combination of greed, deregulation, and a mad rush for energy profits that devalued the environment and human life. Five years ago the small Quebec town was not even on the route for shipping ‘fracked’ shale oil from North Dakota. But since the boom in dirty, unconventional fuel, energy companies in pursuit of record profits are using a wide range of means to convey this oil to market. That includes rail. In 2009, companies shipped 500 carloads of crude oil by rail in Canada; this year, it will be 140,000. New oil-dedicated rail lines, truck routes and the use of barges on waterways are now under consideration. These are among the ways to get around the growing popular movement to block pipelines from the Alberta tar sands.
Thirty years of neoliberalism have fostered corporate recklessness. Ottawa, and other governments in Canada, and elsewhere, have freed the owners from environmental, labour and safety standards, and oversight. It opened the public sector for private profit-seeking.
The railway in Canada is a prime example. Through the mid 1980s, the publicly-run industry was highly regulated. But Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney enacted ‘reforms’ that deregulated the sector, and allowed companies to rewrite safety rules. What followed was an era of cost-cutting, massive lay-offs, speed-up on the job, and eventually, the full privatization of companies and rail-lines.
The Liberal government completed the transition by turning over what regulation remained to rail companies themselves. A rail safety report issued in 2007 concluded: Canada’s rail system was a disaster in waiting to happen.
It’s no wonder that today’s oil and rail barons so easily cut corners. They’ve been using old rail cars to ship oil, despite the fact that regulators warned the federal government they were unsafe, as far back as 20 years ago. A more recent report by a federal agency reminded the government that the cars could be “subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.” All were ignored. To top it off, the federal government gave the go-ahead last year to Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway to operate with just one engineer aboard their trains. In the 1970s, North American freight trains usually carried five-man crews constantly. As companies cut crews, workers competed for the scarcer jobs, which drove down wages – including, eventually, the wage of the one person left running the train.
The over-riding issue, beyond malfunctioning brakes or weak regulation, is the mad scramble for resources whose reckless exploitation dooms a fragile planet. The profit system is the culprit, driving the doomsday machine.
The road to meaningful change requires re-regulation of the industry, linked to public ownership under workers’ and community control, and a rapid transition towards green energy generation. That won’t come from any government enquiry, but only from a raucous social movement that forces it onto the public agenda.
The U.S. residents of Fairfield, Maine, 160 kilometres across the border from Lac-Megantic, Quebec, took up this challenge in July. Several got arrested blockading a train carrying North Dakota fracked oil to the refinery in New Brunswick, Canada. Their message was: End the reliance on oil.
The deaths of nearly 50 people in the July 6 train derailment and explosion touched a nerve, on a continental scale. It sent bureaucrats and politicians scurrying.
Canada’s Transportation and Safety Board called for an urgent review of railway safety procedures. It issued two safety advisories on July 19, echoing ignored recommendations from a 2011 Auditor General’s report. New Democratic Party transportation critic Olivia Chow demanded an emergency meeting of the House of Commons Transport Committee. Conservative MP Larry Miller, the committee chair, brushed aside her request.
In response to mounting pressure, the Conservative government, through Transport Canada, imposed a series of country-wide directives on July 23 which it claimed set more rigorous standards of brake application and procedures for leaving trains unattended. It also outlawed one-person crews, which were standard with Montreal, Maine and Atlantic. Meanwhile, Quebec police raided the headquarters of MM&A in Farnham, Que., after the firm failed to pay more than $4 million (as of July 30, close to $8 million) in disaster cleanup bills, forcing the town and the provincial government to pick up the tab.
Law suits, court challenges, enquiries and studies will, no doubt, drag on for years. Justice, however, will require more than those avenues have to offer.