Colette Roy-Laroche stood before us at almost every press conference, clenching her notepad as if holding on to life. The dazed mayor of Lac-Mégantic, Que., mustered everything she had to keep her composure.
She spoke of water quality, of evacuated streets, and she kept to unemotional facts. Unless reporters prodded her, she never evoked the dozens of missing people, a void bigger than Lac-Mégantic’s obliterated downtown. And she never publicly blamed Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, even if she said time and again over the weekend that no company representative had contacted her.
But as anger gives way to the lost hope of finding survivors, the rest of Quebec is not so forgiving. Four days after a runaway train loaded with crude oil exploded in Lac-Mégantic, the blaming game is in full swing.
There is no shortage of suspects in what appears to be a calamitous succession of events. There was the unmanned train that was left on the main line in Nantes, Que,. and not on the side tracks, where it would have been prevented from moving. The unexplained fire, which led Nantes firemen to shut down the train’s engine. The intervention of MM&A employees, who were alerted and called on site after the fire broke out, according to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) investigators, who contradicted earlier MM&A statements. The steep slope between Nantes and Lac-Mégantic, 13 kilometres away.
But with its slow, distant and misleading responses, a public-relations disaster, no one looks worse than MM&A. The American company seems more preoccupied with its legal liabilities than with showing empathy, even if that is the decent thing to do, both from a human and corporate standpoint, as any PR specialist will tell you.
It could have followed the example of Michael McCain, who took responsibility in a sober and compassionate YouTube video after the deadly listeria contamination of cold cuts that occurred in a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Ontario in 2008. Instead, MM&A keeps on pointing the finger at others. No wonder it is now being crucified by Quebec politicians and Canadian media alike.
The company said it had posted a dozen of its representatives in Lac-Mégantic on Sunday, but in town, they were nowhere to be seen. It took close to 60 hours before its chairman, Ed Burkhardt, actually spoke with Ms. Roy-Laroche. English press releases were so clumsily translated into French at first that it led many to speculate that Google software had been used.
Mr. Burkhardt even went on to say on the TVA network that he hopes he “won’t get shot at” when he finally visits Lac-Mégantic. He should have known better than to insult the grieving. People in Lac-Mégantic don’t shoot at others.
As it failed to manage the fallout, MM&A dug a hole for itself – and embarrassed the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which says it holds close to 13 per cent of the company. With little credibility left, the company’s new promise to never leave a train unmanned is coming across as too little too late.
But if MM&A holds any blame, the Canadian government has been an accomplice to a certain extent. It is Transport Canada that gave special permission to MM&A so that the struggling railway company could use one-man crews and automated locomotive controls to cut its costs. Even given the little we know, it is hard to believe, as Mr. Burkhardt contends, that an extra set of eyes may not have possibly prevented this tragedy.
The federal government also allows rail transportation companies to ship petroleum products in general service cars like the ones used to transport vegetable oil.
Those non-pressured rail tankers are widely used; they represent 70 per cent of Canadian fleet, according to Transport Minister Denis Lebel. But with no double hull, they have come under scrutiny in past years. Rail tankers like the ones that ruptured in Lac-Mégantic are considered much more prone to leaking in crashes.
Would sturdier rail tankers have prevented the oil spillage and the explosions at the rapid speed that the phantom train entered Lac-Mégantic? It is too early to tell, the TSB cautioned. Nonetheless, the thin hulls surely did not help matters.
Canadian regulation is out of sync with today’s widely expanded use of rail to transport petroleum products and other hazardous materials. Building pipelines alone would not diminish all the risks of derailments associated with the transportation of chlorine, acids and other hazardous chemicals.
All across Canada, there are towns like Lac-Mégantic that have been built around railways used to transport passengers and wood products.
But as many passenger trains have been cancelled, these rail tracks have become chemical hazard highways, often unknown to the cities they go through.
As many Canadians live and work within a stone’s throw of the tracks, the federal government can’t wait for the next train.