Charges laid against railroad, employees in Lac-Megantic disaster
Charges against three employees and the company itself come just days before the closing of a $15.85 million sale of the bankrupt MM&A railroad
MONTREAL—Three employees of the railway company involved in last summer’s runaway oil train disaster that killed 47 people and incinerated much of a small Quebec town are facing criminal negligence charges.
The charges come about 10 months after more than 60 of the DOT-111 tanker cars carrying oil from North Dakota came loose in the middle of the night, sped downhill for nearly 11 kilometres and derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Que.
At least five of the tankers exploded, levelling about 30 buildings, including a popular bar that was filled with revelers.
The Quebec provincial prosecutor’s office said 47 counts of criminal negligence have been filed against engineer Thomas Harding, manager of train operations Jean Demaitre, and Richard Labrie, the railway’s traffic controller.
The defunct railway at the heart of the disaster—Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd. (MM&A)—is also implicated in the charges, which represent one count for each person killed and are the first criminal charges brought in the disaster.
Criminal negligence that causes death can result in a jail sentence of up to life imprisonment in Canada.
Rene Verret, a spokesman for the prosecutor, said the three railway employees were arrested late Monday afternoon and are scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday in Lac-Megantic.
A message left at MM&A offices was not immediately returned.
Prosecutors said in a statement that they decided to file the charges after an analysis of the evidence gathered at the scene. Verret said prosecutors had hoped to announce the charges earlier, but they had to find and arrest those charged as well as inform the families of the victims.
The railroad blamed the engineer Harding for failing to set enough brakes, allowing the train to begin rolling toward the lakeside town of 6,000.
He had left the train unattended overnight to sleep at a local inn shortly before it barrelled into Lac-Megantic, devastating the downtown bar area and forcing a third of the town’s residents to flee.
The crash, the worst railway accident in Canada in nearly 150 years, prompted intense public pressure to make oil trains safer in the U.S. and Canada. Canada’s then transport minister Lisa Raitt said in April that the type of tankers involved in the disaster must be retired or retrofitted within three years because they are prone to rupturing.
The oil industry has rapidly moved to using trains to transport oil in part because of oil booms in the Bakken region in North Dakota and in the oil sands in Alberta, and because of a lack of pipelines.
The arrests came just days before the closing of the $15.85 million sale of the bankrupt MM&A railroad. Most of the proceeds will be used to repay creditors.
Eventually, there will be a settlement fund to compensate victims and repay cleanup costs.
The total environmental cleanup alone could end up costing between $200 million and $500 million based on early estimates, and there’s only $25 million in insurance payouts available for wrongful death, personal injury, property damage, fire suppression and environmental impact.
The railroad’s buyer, a subsidiary of New York-based Fortress Investment Group, is changing the railroad’s name to Central Maine and Quebec Railway. The company said it hopes to recapture lost business but has no plans to try to bring back oil shipments.
Gillies contributed to this report from Toronto. Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland, Maine, also contributed to this report.