Nearly two years after the Lac-Mégantic oil train explosion killed 47 people and levelled the small Quebec town, the federal government has laid new criminal charges.
Six former employees of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, including the train engineer and the top executive, face charges under the Railway Safety Act and Fisheries Act for their alleged roles in the worst Canadian rail disaster in modern times. The bankrupt company itself has also been charged.
The charges come as a battle over a $430-million victims’ fund is being waged in Quebec court, and almost a year after a Transportation Safety Board report on the disaster found that just seven handbrakes were set on the train.
The federal government said the accused failed to ensure that the brakes were properly set on the unattended train of 63 oil tank cars that rolled down a hill in the early morning of July 6, 2013, before crashing in a series of explosions that destroyed 40 buildings and killed people in their sleep or as they enjoyed a night out in the picturesque village.
The former MM&A employees facing two counts each of violating the Railway Safety Act are: MM&A chief executive officer Robert Grindrod; train engineer Tom Harding; operations manager Jean Demaître; assistant transportation director Mike Horan; safety director Kenneth Strout; and general manager of transportation Lynne Labonté.
There are also environmental charges over the spillage of oil. All of the accused are scheduled to appear in a Lac-Mégantic court on Nov. 12. The charges have not been tested in court.
Mr. Grindrod, reached at his home in Maine, said he was not aware of the charges and could not respond to questions about them.
“It’s the first I’ve heard of it,” he told The Globe and Mail.
Mr. Grindrod is the most senior executive to face charges in the catastrophe. Edward Burkhardt, who owned the railway, has not been charged. A call to his U.S. office was not returned on Monday.
Companies that violate the Railway Safety Act face fines of up to $1-million. Individuals face maximum fines of $50,000 and six months in jail.
Raymond Lafontaine, a Lac-Mégantic businessman, lost his son Gaétan, two daughters-in-law and an employee in the explosion.
“I agree there should be justice, but … it feels like we’re still looking for people to blame,” Mr. Lafontaine said. He said he feels there are people higher up in the railway that need to be held accountable for what happened and hopes that’s the case here.
“We’re going to bring this to our graves,” he said.
The investigation by the Transportation Safety Board found that just seven handbrakes was set on the train, which was parked on a grade, before the operator went to a hotel at the end of his shift. After a fire on the locomotive, the train’s air-brake system slowly lost pressure, and the unattended train rolled down the hill, reaching a speed of more than 100 kilometres an hour before it exploded in the town.
According to a public health report on the disaster, the explosion released 5.5 million litres of crude and contaminated 560,000 tonnes of soil.
Mr. Harding, Mr. Demaître and another railway employee, Richard Labrie, were charged last year with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death and are due in court in the fall. The Canadian subsidiary of bankrupt MM&A faces similar charges. All have pleaded not guilty.
Mr. Harding’s lawyer, Thomas Walsh, questioned the timing of the new charges against his client Monday and criticized the government for trying to look proactive after years of unsafe railway practices, such as understaffing.
“Now they’re coming out as if they’re taking care of business,” Mr. Walsh told The Canadian Press. “They’re not taking care of business by two years later accusing him of something he’s already been accused of. What the hell is the point?”
Meanwhile, questions hover over the fate of a $430-million settlement for victims’ families. Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., which hauled the oil from North Dakota to Montreal before handing it over to MM&A, is the lone party to refuse to contribute to the fund. Calgary-based CP argued in a Quebec court last week it played no part in the disaster, and that the provincial court has no jurisdiction on the matter. If CP is successful, the payouts to victims’ families could be delayed by years.
Governments and transport regulators in Canada and the United States responded to the disaster by implementing tougher safety regulations for dangerous-goods trains, including phasing out older tank cars and imposing lower speed limits.
Ali Asgary, a professor of emergency preparedness at Toronto’s York University, said regulators have taken important steps to make rail transport of dangerous goods safer but more needs to be done. For instance, he said railways’ safety plans should face more government scrutiny.
“Human error is just one element that contributes to derailments,” he said by phone. “Statistically, this is going to happen.”
Luc Dion is a French teacher at a high school in Lac-Mégantic. On the night of the rail disaster he was sitting on the patio of the Musi-Café bar, only metres away from the railroad track when the train blew past, derailing nearby. Mr. Dion fled the inferno that quickly engulfed part of downtown. He was one of the few patrons at the Musi-Café to survive the disaster.
“We don’t talk about what happened anymore, most of the community has had its moment of grief and life is taking its course again,” he told The Globe on Monday.
With a report from Justin Giovannetti
Editor's Note: The original print version and an earlier online version of this article contained two errors that have been fixed in this online version. The previous versions said incorrectly that one handbrake was set on the train. In fact, seven were set. In addition, the previous versions said Raymond Lafontaine, a Lac-Mégantic businessman, lost his son Gaétan, two stepdaughters and an employee in the explosion. In fact, it was two daughters-in-law.Report Typo/Error