The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied
by Bruce Campbell
James Lorimer & Co. Publishers:
Release Date: October 4, 2018
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The book uncovers new elements of the story behind the Lac-Mégantic disaster: what happened, how it happened, who was responsible, and why it can happen again.
Lac-Mégantic was not a rare random occurrence, impossible to foresee. On the contrary, it was the culmination of a series of events, policies, decisions, which as the book details, over time saw an enormous build-up in the risk of catastrophe, to the point where it became a matter of Russian roulette— not if, but when.
The book traces the trajectory of deregulation—accelerated by privatization and fiscal austerity—beginning with the Mulroney government, continuing with the Chretien-Martin government, and culminating with the Harper Conservatives.
It chronicles the measures, which systematically removed safety protections— producing a weakened and compliant regulator captured by a powerful industry—which subordinated government’s foremost obligation to protect its citizens, the citizens of Lac-Mégantic, to the private interests of corporations. Public betrayal.
The book recounts the story of US railway hard-liner Hunter Harrison who, as head of CN and later CP, transformed the Canadian railway landscape; and with CP became a central player in the highly profitable but increasingly risky transportation of Bakken crude and Alberta bitumen.
It shows how, despite critical assessments of Transport Canada’s deeply flawed rail safety regime, and warnings from inside the department, senior officials and their political masters downplayed the growing dangers in the rush to get oil to coastal refineries like Irving. The railways, averse to limitations on their lucrative new revenue stream, pressured government to block or delay regulations to help cope with the new reality.
The book describes how CP subcontractor, Montréal Maine and Atlantic Railway, headed by another US railroader Ed Burkhardt, a company with an appalling safety record and a culture of negligence—was able to gain permission from Transport Canada to operate its oil trains, which ran through Lac-Mégantic, with a single crewmember. It probes the decision-making dynamics within Transport Canada that led to this approval, and the abnegation of ministerial responsibility. It reveals how the single person crew decision was covered up as a cause of the disaster up by the politically compromised final Transportation Safety Board report—overriding the findings of the investigation team.
It is also the story of lives, which were forever changed by the tragedy, subsequent tragedies endured by many, and the courageous struggle of those who have fought against despair and for safety and justice for their community.
Only three front-line workers were put on trial for criminal negligence. They were acquitted. : No decision-makers within the industry, the company and the government were held to account.
Virtually all criminal and civil actions have been settled behind closed doors except the criminal trial, where the only people who testified were low-level company and government employees.
No company executives or its owner, no senior government officials, no political or industry leaders— were compelled to testify under oath. As a vehicle to uncover the truth and hold those responsible to account, the legal system failed. A public inquiry is the only remaining vehicle capable of getting at the truth and bringing a measure of justice.
Finally, the Harper and Trudeau government’s failure to address fundamental safety risks that still exist, leave open the door for history to repeat itself at a time when oil-by-rail traffic is reaching record levels.
Bruce Campbell is a former Executive Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He is the author of three major reports on the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. For this work, he was awarded a Law Foundation of Ontario Community Leadership in Justice Fellowship and spent 2016 as a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. Bruce Campbell is currently adjunct professor, York University, Faculty of Environmental Studies; and Senior Fellow, Ryerson University, Centre for Free Expression.
He can be reached at: 613-749-3374; or by cell: 613-875-2234; email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Advanced Praise for “The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied”
“Bruce Campbell has carried out meticulous research in many fields to piece together the whole story of a catastrophe-in-the making, and his findings, as reported in this book, will be of interest to readers who value human life, intact communities, and a safe environment. Much more than a research report, the book is a dramatic read, with no letup in the action from start to finish.”
[Harry Gow, retired criminology teacher at University of Ottawa, is President Emeritus of Transport Action Canada and Chair of the Board of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre]
“Bruce Campbell has made a superb contribution. His vivid account of the events at Lac-Megantic reveal a deep empathy for the victims. He accords them the highest respect possible by avoiding sentiment and explaining why it all happened. He puts the tragedy in its economic and political context. He shows how the internalization of neoliberalism by our political elites has made it too easy easy for predators. Deregulation to satisfy the avaricious heedless of human welfare, is carefully documented. The associated disciplining of bureaucrats and the corruption of corruptible regulators is brought out with precision. Campbell proves that the Lac-Megantic disaster was a designed event, not an accident. The laws’ failure to punish the truly guilty endorses his point. This is a “must read’ for all, but especially for those of us who want to believe that our political and legal institutions are there to protect us, rather than private profiteers.”
Harry Glasbeek, Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar, Osgoode Hall Law School. York University
With great policy proficiency and a profound quest for justice, Campbell clearly explains why Transport Canada – along with and railway companies/lobbies and oil companies– did not want a public inquiry into the tragedy of Lac-Mégantic. This book exposes how these actors sought to shield their actions rather than promote public safety. Corporate greed and narcissism, regulatory capture, political laissez-faire and unaccountability are boldly explained as some of the unwarranted causes of this tragedy. These explanations, as infuriating as they are, tragically comfort after more than five years of impunity and mourning.”
Liette Gilbert is Professor and Graduate Program Director, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University. Professor Gilbert grew up in the adjoining town of Nantes, from where the fateful train ran away. She retains close ties with the Lac-Mégantic community.
“Bruce Campbell has achieved a rare feat. By combining careful and meticulous research with compelling personal narratives, his engaging and highly readable book is both a sobering analysis of the diverse constellation of factors that ultimately led to the Lac-Mégantic tragedy and a moving elegy to those whose lives were forever altered by it. It is also a call to action and a larger reflection on the need to balance prosperity with fundamental values. All Canadians should read this book.”
Professor Jennifer Quaid, Civil Law Section, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa
“The Lac Mégantic catastrophe was the deadly culmination of several strands of corporate malfeasance and government negligence: privatization, union-busting, cost-cutting, a blind faith in extractivism, and criminal regulatory laxity. Bruce Campbell follows every thread, documenting the ultimate causes of the disaster and identifying what must change. This powerful, impeccably documented book is not just a masterwork of documentary journalism: it’s a call to action. Read it. Get angry. Then speak out, before it happens again.”
Jim Stanford, Former Economist Unifor, and Harold Innis Industry Professor of Economics, McMaster University