Lac-Megantic was home to one of Quebec's largest catastrophes. All photos via Jean-Francois Hamelin
On Monday, May 12th, a SWAT team descended on Thomas Harding’s home just before 5PM. Camo-clad officers swarmed the property and forced Thomas Harding, his teenage child, and a family friend to lay face-down on the ground at gunpoint before handcuffing and hauling away one of three men being blamed for the Lac Megantic train derailment. All this according to Thomas Welsh, Thomas Harding's lawyer, who described the arrest of his client on Montreal's RadioX.
Thomas Harding, Jean Demaître, Richard Labrie and the Montréal Maine and Atlantic railway company have been charged with 47 counts of causing death by criminal negligence, one for every victim of the oily disaster that spilled nearly six million litres of crude and demolished the town’s city centre. If found guilty, each faces life in prison. Last year, VICE was on the scene surveying the damage and digging into how a cataclysmic failure of policy and corporate cost-cutting led to a massive fireball that levelled the heart of a small town). In spite of the overwhelming evidence that the rail system wasn’t up to par for such massive oil shipments, this week’s charges are laid against individual employees of the rail company.
Harding was the engineer of the train, Labrie was the railway traffic controller and Demaitre was the manager of train operations. The three of them and the MMA rail company are the only ones being held responsible for last year’s catastrophe. No one else is being charged for the spill—not the MMA board members, not any regulator, and most importantly, not Edward Burkhardt, the chairperson of MMA. As recently as March 2014, Burkhardt was considered to be one of the most likely to be charged with criminal negligence. But when the accused were named, Burkhardt was in the clear.
When asked why the MMA chairperson was not listed with the accused, the spokesperson for the DCPC, Jean Pascal Boucher, told VICE there wasn’t enough evidence to assure a conviction. “In Canadian law we have to evaluate the investigation that the police transfer to our office. So we have to deal with criminal law, he said. "We have to analyze the evidence and if we consider it sufficient to press charges against an individual. That is our responsibility. But if in the evaluation of the evidence we are not morally convinced that we can get a guilty verdict we don’t press charges.”
As for the MMA, if found guilty, there is no set amount of fines that they would face.
“The criminal code provides that if there is culpability, instead of imprisonment, there is a fine," said Jean Pascal Boucher. “There is no minimum, there’s no maximum. It is to the court to decide the amount.”
The funny thing about fining the MMA is that they’re about to be bought by an American company, Railroad Acquisition Holdings LLC,
Picturesque Lac-Mégantic, from above.
If sold, there is no certainty that any punishment or liability would be transferred along with the company. Jean Pascal Boucher refused to comment on whether culpability could follow MMA to its new owner, stating only that he can not answer hypothetical questions.
Distance seems to be the best defense against liability. Sure, Harding didn’t apply enough handbrakes before tucking in for the night, but it was the firemen who shut off the locomotive, allowing the air brakes to slowly leak and eventually unlock. It was a faceless person over a telephone who told Harding to go back to sleep and that everything was under control. And it was the Transportation Safety Board of Canada who established a voluntary safety standard for oil tankers (that standard is now in a three year transitional period to becoming mandatory for all oil cars operating inside of Canada).
There is a wealth of people who contributed to last year’s tragedy. With a nine-fold increase in oil transported by rail over a measly two year period, an increase from 15,980 barrels a day of crude oil in early to 2012 to a stunning 146,047 barrels a day by the end of 2013—who is really to blame? Our legal system is bound by reasonable doubt, and those who divvy up annual profits are also the farthest from the daily operations. Are Harding, Demaître and Labrie really the most culpable, or are they simply the most vulnerable?