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Canada Police within weeks of making arrests in connection with Lac-Mégantic disaster, TV report says

Charred vehicles and fire retardant foam can be seen in front of the destroyed Musi-Café on the main road in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., July 7, 2013. A train carrying crude oil tankers derailed early Saturday and burst into flames.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Quebec provincial police are within weeks of making the first arrests in connection with the July 6 train crash in Lac-Mégantic, Que., that killed 47 people, the TVA television network reported Thursday.

However, a provincial Justice Department official said his office has received no information about pending arrests and is still waiting for a report from police on their investigation.

René Verret, a spokesman for the director of criminal and penal prosecutions in Quebec, said it is possible that police would choose to make arrests on their own. But he added that in complex investigations, police usually provide a report to his office first and then determine how to proceed.

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"No accusations can be taken against anyone [by the crown] until we first receive the report," Mr. Verret said. "And then we take the time to analyze it and to decide if we're going to prosecute some people and what kind of accusation we will take."

The Sûreté du Québec had previously made it clear that it was looking for evidence of criminal negligence in the tragedy, where a train of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway carrying a shipment of highly flammable oil was left unattended and rolled out of control into Lac-Mégantic, where it blew up, levelling the town core.

"Investigators ... have made a lot of progress in reconstructing the chain of events that led to the derailment. We should expect arrests within a few weeks at the most," TVA said it was told by an anonymous source.

Thomas Walsh, the lawyer for Tom Harding, who was the train's engineer, said he didn't sense the same urgency.

"I was assured yesterday by the Crown that the wheels hadn't even been put in motion yet to study the case in terms of criminal responsibility," he told The Globe and Mail Thursday.

SQ Inspector Michel Forget, the lead officer in the case, told reporters in early July that the force had been discussing with the office of Claude Lachapelle, Quebec's deputy attorney-general, who also heads the bureau of public and criminal prosecution, to get Crown attorneys assigned to the file.

In late July, the SQ executed a search warrant on the Canadian headquarters of MM&A.

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The latest report came as the Transportation Safety Board cited a North Dakota shipper and New Brunswick-based refinery giant Irving Oil for failing to ensure that the oil aboard the train was properly classified.

The shipments of crude from the Bakken oil field were loaded onto the ill-fated train in New Town, N.D., by an affiliate of Miami-based World Fuel Services Corp.

According to the TSB, some of the oil on the train was initially classified as a more hazardous category of oil – as volatile as gasoline – by North Dakota producers who sold the oil to World Fuel.

However, the TSB said, by the time the crude was loaded into rail cars in New Town, it had been re-designated as standard crude.

"For us, North Dakota is one of the keys to the story," the source cited by TVA said, adding that there had been good co-operation between the Quebec police and the FBI.

Investigators have also been looking at the moments leading up to the derailment.

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The night of the tragedy, the train had pulled into the town of Nantes, uphill from Lac-Mégantic. What happened next is disputed.

The company initially said that the sole crew member, Mr. Harding, properly secured the train by putting handbrakes. MM&A chairman Edward Burkhardt then later told reporters that he believes the engineer failed to apply enough of the train's manual brakes to ensure it would stay in place.

Around 11:30 p.m. a passerby saw flames on the train and Nantes firefighters were called by an MM&A dispatcher who also asked a track-repair worker to go to the scene. After the fire was extinguished and the firefighters and MM&A employee left, the train began to move and rolled downhill towards Lac-Mégantic.

Police interviewed Mr. Harding for about 10 hours following the crash and TVA said investigators want to ask him more questions.

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