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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Lac-Megantic: Everyone is pointing fingers. I am pointing one.

Accidents happen in life. We all get that. That is why we have car insurance and we make everyone have car insurance. But what we don't do is let people drive cars that are dangerous, like say without brakes or safe steering or any other safety feature. And we don't let anyone drive without a drivers license or not obey the rules of the road to the point they are dangerous. 
When those people do have accidents, they aren't accidents. Those are actions that lead to predictable crashes and loss of life.


In Lac-Megantic, the train incident (not accident) was very predictable. I say this because I know something about how freight is moved in this country.

I have lived off and on at my current house for about 35 years. My neighborhood was built just a year before I moved here and we were the first and only owners of the house. I bought it 15 years ago off my mother. Before we lived here, the whole area was one big farm, and of course, like most areas like that, the railway went through it. That is a reality of Canada.
The railway was here long before we were and it still is. A train goes by my backyard just about every 10 minutes, 24/7. Do hazardous materials get carried on those rail cars? I don't know, but I suspect they do. 


The same year we moved in, there was a terrible train derailment in Mississauga which caused evacuation because of the hazardous chemicals on that train. That was in 1979, now 34 years ago. Has anything been done to protect residents from an accident of that magnitude again, like the one that happened in Lac-Megantic on Saturday? It doesn't seem so. 

 
I know this much: That train that goes by my backyard crosses a main street just about a mile away, and it is also a major switching place for conductors and engineers at the end of their shift. I will get to how I know that in a bit. But what you need to know is that there are very strict rules on how long a train conductor or engineer can drive a train. When they reach that limit, they must stop. That is the law and they never go over that. 
Back in 2008, I worked for a company that was contracted to pickup CN employees that drive these trains. As far as I know, they must wait at the train for the next crew to board and take charge. They are not allowed to leave the train unattended on the tracks.  
We used to pick up these train crews and take them to a hotel they were booked at staying, and then also bring the new crew to the train so it could carry on, supervised. Sometimes the crews had their own transportation, but when they didn't, we were well aware that we had to get the crews switched fast. When freight doesn't move, it costs a lot of money. And make no mistake, it is all about the money. Moving freight is a hugely profitable business, and the people who move it make a lot of money, whether they sit or whether they drive the trains. 
 

 "It is said that without railways, there could be and would be NO Canada."

 This country was built on the railway that carries goods from one end to the other. Canada is a huge geographical country. We need to carry freight on the railway. We all understand  and accept that. In almost every case the railway was there long before the cities that now surround it. In fact, a town like Lac-Megantic only exists because it was a railway town. Just like thousands of others in Canada.

What the town usually looks like.

"We all know that the train like that brought the town to life, but that night, the train killed it (the town)."

-Ghislain Bisson, resident of Lac-Megantic

 
 
What it looks like now.

All that being said, safety is safety and we have to have safety first. Just like ensuring that the brakes and steering work on our cars, we will consider it an accident only when we do everything we can to maintain safety and something happens in addition to that.
Are we doing all we can? I don't think so. That brings us to the inevitable blame that comes with an incident like this. Everyone is pointing fingers at the next guy and saying "not me."

The owner of the company that runs the train, the Montreal Maine Atlantic Rail Company, Edward Burkhardt,  blames the firemen.

"The shutdown of the locomotive (to put out the fire) caused the brakes to gradually release."

The firefighters claim that they are certain that putting out a fire about an hour before on that exact train had no bearing on what happened next.

"I know for sure. Nothing that the firefighters did could have put the train in jeopardy."

The finger pointing has already begun. Nobody is accepting blame for causing an 80 car railway train full of crude oil to go screaming down the track unattended and kill something like 30 or 40 people.
The firemen who put out the original fire on the train say that is all they did. The conductor says the braking system was fully engaged when he left it on the tracks for the night. The railway company says the train had to be tampered with otherwise there is no way this could happen, and thus, none of them will accept any blame for what ended up happening.Sure, lots of people or companies can and will take part of the blame for this. But for me, it just seems insane that you are allowed to leave a freight train full of cars carrying dangerous and highly flammable materials sitting on a train track unattended.
The bottom line is this: If it was illegal to park a freight train on the tracks and leave it unattended from Point A to Point B, then this would have never happened. All sorts of people can pass the blame on down the line. However, there is one person though who isn't going to be able to pass the blame on. Our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.
The finger pointing should rest at Stephen Harper. He is the one who let this happen. He is so hell-bent that oil is going to drive our economy, and in that respect make him look good as a Prime Minister who runs a great economy, that he will bend all rules and do anything to make sure our oil is as cheap and plentiful as he can possibly make it. We have seen many examples of this with respect to the Tar Sands oil, in a region he represents. 

Since Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, this is what has happened. Yet, no laws to reflect the increase in danger because of it. Why? Because that would increase the cost of the oil.
Should hazardous materials like crude oil be allowed to be shipped directly through towns like mine and Lac-Megantic, and thousands of others? We could debate that. I don't know. If it can be done reasonably safely, and also economically, I would say yes. But there is no way that a train carrying materials like this should be allowed to be left unattended, to the point that a runaway train could result. Or a fire started without it being noticed in time. But, that isn't against the law. Why? Because our Prime Minister doesn't want it to be. It means the cost of our oil goes up, and it makes him look not as brilliant as he likes to make us think he is. 

 "We have been looking on how we can take action on the Federal Government  but it hasn't taken it seriously. This is the result."

-John Bennett, The Sierra Club

So, at the end of the day, the blame is on Harper. If he made a simple law that forbid this situation from ever happening, then it would not have happened.

You can make all the safety improvements you want, and after the 1979 derailment they did, but no matter how safe the trains and tracks now are, basic, simple common sense tells you that you should never leave a train full of hazardous material unattended on the track. If you want to ship it, it has to go from Point A to Point B, with a quick supervised stop to switch crews. If that costs a lot more, then it does. If that makes it too expensive to ship by rail, then you don't ship it. The end. No discussion.
Because it doesn't actually work that way, and 30 or 40 people died in Lac-Megantic, that blame falls squarely on Stephen Harper and his insatiable desire for us to be a world leader in oil production. At all costs. If that costs lives, he doesn't seem to care about that. For that reason, the blaming finger leads to him and rests right there, where it belongs.

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