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Examining the Aftermath of Lac Mégantic

With the death toll at 50, and a class-action against Montreal, Maine & Atlantic building, Joel Balsam examines the aftermath of the Lac Mégantic tragedy.
July 17, 2013, 3:22pm

The wreckage in Lac Mégantic. Photo by Jean-Francois Hamelin for VICE Canada.

On Monday, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the company that owned the train that flattened the centre of tiny Lac Mégantic in what could be the biggest class-action case in Canadian history.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, MM&A has put on a clinic of how not to handle a disaster. Firstly, MM&A’s CEO and Chairman Edward Burkhardt was nowhere to be found until four days after the disaster because, according to him, he was working “20-hour work days” dealing with press, insurance companies, and officials. Or, was it because he was afraid of getting shot at by townspeople, as he told TVA?

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When he finally did get to Lac Mégantic, he gave a ridiculously blunt press conference that was anything but respectful—then left town without meeting victims or the mayor. Sure, it’s been pointed out that MM&A has no day-to-day PR department to deal with this kind of thing, but do you need a team of PR guys to teach genuine compassion?

Subsequently, the guy has been pretty much blasted by every news outlet and blog, as well as by public relations experts, politicians, and on social media for his shitty response in the wake of the explosion.

The press conference in Lac Mégantic could have been a great opportunity for Ed to show his face to locals, give some hugs, and promise immediate compensation. Instead, the CEO was defensive, and made completely contradictory statements to what he and his company had been saying over the past week until then.

Now, instead of trying to generate some goodwill with the great people of Lac Mégantic, some townspeople are rightfully upset. For example, one victim’s father said on-camera that Burkhardt should “put a rope around his neck and hang himself.”

The “very good safety record” that MM&A has boasted about all along is now being called into question. Despite being a smaller rail company, from 2003 to 2012 MM&A has had three times as many train accidents per million miles travelled than the US national average according to The Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Management in the US. And this doesn’t include the eight recorded incidents related to hazardous materials over the past eight years.

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Evidently, the alarms didn’t go off for Burkhardt’s company when they should have. Instead of taking full responsibility and promising changes, Burkhardt pointed the finger at Thomas Harding, the 30-year veteran engineer who was asleep in a hotel after his 12-hour shift while his train rolled downhill towards Lac Mégantic’s town centre carrying hundreds of tons of crude oil. This is a major flip-flop from when the company called Harding a hero for helping firemen put out a small fire that was extinguished aboard the train hours before it rolled away.

While Harding is probably partly to blame for doing something wrong or not actually applying 11 handbrakes like he said he did, the Transportation Safety Board’s Chair Wendy Tadros told the Globe and Mail that usually accidents involve a series of things and “it never comes down to one individual.” An anonymous former MM&A employee expressed sympathy for Harding, and told the CBC that because he was the only engineer on the train, it was always “a disaster waiting to happen.” A CP Rail engineer we interviewed last week echoed the same thing about the cost-cutting one-man train practice that MM&A has been championing for years.

The state of Wisconsin has gotten the message about single-engineer trains and enforced at least two-man crews since 1997, but no such law exists in Québec or Maine. Expect that to change.

While it's easy to hate on Burkhardt, it's not all MM&A’s fault as much as his PR blunders make us want to believe. The lack of regulation, the upswing in oil transport, the engineer and probably many more things too after the investigations come through. Still, if we do need to pick a scapegoat, Ed Burkhardt and co. are making it far too easy to choose one.

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Money has poured into Lac Mégantic from the government and fundraisers across the country, but more is needed to rebuild the city and give compensation to the families of the victims. Hopefully, as one of the men I interviewed in Lac Mégantic told me, MM&A won’t go bankrupt before the residents get paid what they deserve.

Follow Joel on Twitter: @JoelBalsam

More on Lac Mégantic:

Impressions from Lac Mégantic

Lac Mégantic Could Have Been Saved, if the Train Had a Conductor