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July 4, 2014 - No. 63

Anniversary of Lac-Mégantic Tragedy

The People Want Redress

Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, July 6, 2013

Anniversary of Lac-Mégantic Tragedy
The People Want Redress
Demands for a Public Authority Which Enforces Health and Safety on the Railways

Governments Must Bring an End to Workplace Deaths and Injuries
More Tragic Construction Worker Fatalities in Toronto Area
High Frequency of Worker Deaths Shows Ontario Safety Not Improving - Jim Nugent

Anniversary of Lac-Mégantic Tragedy

The People Want Redress

July 6, 2014, marks the first anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy, one of the deadliest train disasters in Canadian history. A year ago, in the evening of July 5, a freight train made up of five locomotives and 72 tank cars not suited for the purpose of the kind of crude oil they carried, was left unattended for the night in Nantes, Quebec. At about 1:00 am, the train started to move down a slope towards the town of Lac-Mégantic. Shortly thereafter, 63 of the tank cars derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic, releasing their contents which caused massive fires and explosions. Forty-seven people were killed, many more were injured and downtown Lac-Mégantic was destroyed. Since then, the soil, the Chaudière River and the lake itself have been heavily contaminated from the crude oil spill.

On this sad anniversary, TML Daily once again salutes the hundreds of emergency responders and people who at the time of the accident came from across Quebec and the rest of Canada to save lives at great risk to themselves and help the community in countless ways. It salutes all those who have continued to fight, not only for redress for the people of Lac-Mégantic but to make sure that such accidents never take place again.

Throughout this, the Harper government has refused to take responsibility for this tragedy. On May 3, three workers from the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway were charged in a local Lac-Mégantic court with criminal negligence in the deaths of 47 people. One of them, the engineer, was arrested in the most sensational and unwarranted fashion, in which he, his son and a friend were surrounded and violently pinned to the ground by a police tactical squad. In a recent interview with La Presse, Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt tried to whitewash the actions of her government and the Liberal governments of the 1980s and 1990s for their anti-social, neo-liberal, nation-wrecking agenda which has smashed the public authority in favour of decision-making by private interests. She repeated the spurious claim that the Lac-Mégantic disaster is the result of the negligence of individuals who did not abide by the existing safety rules.

The privatization of the railways and self-regulation by the industry over the affairs which concern the society have resulted in crimes against the people. The federal government, responsible for regulating the railway industry, should be charged with criminal negligence. The assault on the human factor has been profound, especially the constant reduction of the number of workers and government personnel responsible for safety, and secret deals with the railways to allow them to operate at sub-standard safety levels. All these things done by the government to favour the monopolies at the expense of the public interest are the main factor in this disaster and the many more that have happened since then. Raitt's remarks about new regulations being in place underscores her government's disregard for the workers, their health and safety and that of the public. For years workers have been saying that governments' refusal to enforce regulations and hold the monopolies to account is what permits them to act with impunity time and time again. The government's self-righteous position and defence of monopoly right is further evidenced by its praise that charges have been brought in the case, never mind that the only people charged are three workers.

At the moment, the oil and crude oil transportation monopolies are excited at the prospect of bigger scores to be made in the sector. They are calling on the federal and the provincial governments to speed up the approval and financing of infrastructure projects, as the Harper government just did with the Northern Gateway pipeline, despite the massive opposition of the workers, people and First Nations. To speed up pipeline approval and rail transport while decreasing personnel, safety mechanisms and environmental regulations can only lead to further tragedies for the people and greater despoiling of Mother Earth. It must not pass!

Now is the time to step up the fight to force governments and the monopolies to provide redress for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy and other crimes. The Harper government is unfit to govern, as are all governments that put themselves at the service of the monopolies instead of defending the rights of the people to live a life in dignity and safety. Get the Harper government out of office! It can be done! It must be done!

Reconstruction continues on Rue Frontenac the main road running through downtown Lac-Mégantic. Photo at left shows work being done on June 19, 2014. The downtown is still not open to the general public.

(Photos: Ville de Lac-Mégantic, R. Jobin/SPIQ)

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Demands for a Public Authority Which Enforces
Health and Safety on the Railways

The Quebec government has submitted a $400 million claim against the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), the carrier handling the shipment of crude oil that crashed in Lac-Mégantic. This is the estimated total cost of the cleanup and reconstruction, including the decontamination of the soil in downtown Lac-Mégantic, the government says. So far, the government estimates that it has spent $126 million on cleanup and reconstruction and expects to spend another $280 million to complete the work. MMA filed for bankruptcy on August 7, 2013 and the government filed its claim in Quebec Superior Court which is handling the bankruptcy proceedings. MMA was sold earlier this year to Fortress Investment Group of New York.

The government says it wants other companies that are involved in the disaster to make an arrangement under the bankruptcy procedures to cover the costs incurred by the disaster otherwise it says it might sue them directly. Irving Oil was to refine the oil being carried by MMA, while other companies produced the crude oil and leased the tank cars.

Decontamination of water polluted by the spill of crude oil, Lac-Mégantic, June 19, 2014.

Meanwhile, proceedings for a class-action suit began on June 9 in Sherbrooke. The class-action suit is being raised by four plaintiffs on behalf of citizens of Lac-Mégantic. More than 3,500 people have signed up to join the suit to date. More than 30 companies are targeted by the class-action. That includes MMA and its President Edward Burkhardt, Rail World, Irving Oil, World Fuel Services, Dakota Petroleum, Western Petroleum and Canadian Pacific. Transport Canada is also targeted by the class-action. It is estimated that if approved, the class-action suit could result in a settlement in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In his opening remarks on June 9, one of the lawyers of the victims said that all the implicated parties share responsibility for the disaster:

"Had the respondents focused on acting reasonably, the outcome would have been much different. ... We have in this courtroom through the counsel that represents these corporations, some of the most sophisticated, knowledgeable and experienced players in the oil industry. So when you hear them say, 'How were we to know about the DOT-111 cars or the volatility of the oil?' just pause and think, 'Does this really measure up to the level of credibility required for plausible deniability?'"

Soil decontamination, behind the Tafisa particle board plant, Lac-Mégantic, June 19, 2014.

The people demand a public authority that enforces health and safety regulations for rail transport to make sure that such tragedies will not happen again. For its part, Transport Canada sidesteps this issue so as to not even be held to account. But it has nonetheless adopted a number of safety rules in the last year on the basis of recommendations made by the Transportation Safety Board. One is the rule that trains carrying dangerous goods must now have a two-person crew. The train that crashed in Lac-Mégantic had a one-man crew precisely because of a 2012 Transport Canada decision to allow MMA to do so.

Another new rule forbids trains carrying dangerous goods be left unattended on a main track. Another one says that railways must disclose to municipalities the dangerous goods transported across their jurisdictions. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of tanker cars that are not suited for carrying hazardous materials are still on the rails and carrying these goods through populated areas.

People have been very critical of these measures because not only are they very minimal but Transport Canada is known for not enforcing existing regulations. It considers that railways should self-regulate while its role is to rubber stamp their safety audits. In a recent interview with La Presse, Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt referred to several warnings that Transport Canada delivered to MMA in the years prior to the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Transport Canada pointed out that MMA was contravening federal regulations on the use of brakes to immobilize trains when they are idled. At no time did Transport Canada sanction MMA. Minister Raitt said that the fact that the Transport Canada inspectors followed through with the warnings to MMA proves that the regulatory framework is working.

"Our inspectors kept going to MMA... The fact that MMA was flagged as a company that was having problems and that inspectors kept visiting the company is important. It shows that Transport Canada realized that it had to work with the company in order to ensure that it would do what is necessary," she said.

It is also known that Transport Canada does not have enough inspectors on hand to do their work at a time there is a drastic increase in rail transportation of crude oil.

Derailment of train carrying hazardous petroleum products in Plaster Rock, NB, January 7, 2014. The train originated in
Western Canada and was bound for the Irving Oil refinery in St. John, NB.

Regarding municipalities' concerns, a number of mayors have pointed out that they only receive information about the transport of dangerous goods over their jurisdiction after the fact -- that during such and such time period, such and such dangerous goods travelled through their municipality. This is unacceptable they stressed. The residents of the municipalities at the very least want to know ahead of time what is going to be carried across their territory.

Meanwhile life has resumed in the devastated town of Lac-Mégantic. Residents are having forums in which they discuss how their new reconstructed downtown will look like which could take two to three years before it is rebuilt. One of the most passionate discussions concerns the need for an alternate track to go around the municipality instead of having trains go through the downtown. Residents of other municipalities whose economic activity is historically based on the railways are also discussing the issue.

(Translations of French quotations by TML. Photos: Ville de Lac-Mégantic, TSBC.)

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Governments Must Bring an End to Workplace Deaths and Injuries

More Tragic Construction Worker Fatalities in
Toronto Area

Construction workers and other working people are saddened and deeply concerned by news about the worksite deaths of two construction workers in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) during the week of June 23. The workers died in separate accidents. On June 23, Sarmad Iskander fell to his death from the 28th floor of the downtown Toronto condo he was working on. Iskander was only 22 years old and had come to Canada in 2010 as a refugee from Iraq. On June 27, a 46-year-old worker on a private road project in Milton was crushed to death by a dump truck. TML Daily sends heartfelt condolences to the family, friends and workmates of the men who died.

Sarmad Iskander

The workers who died in these accidents were the third and fourth workers killed on construction sites in the GTA this year. The Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario issued a press release which said these latest two fatal construction accidents are part of a "pattern of needless, completely preventable workplace deaths" on Ontario building sites. It said there is an epidemic of workplace deaths and injuries in Ontario which needs to be addressed by government.

There have been a total of seven deaths of construction workers on Ontario sites in 2014. Last year, 16 Ontario construction workers were killed on the job. Over the last 10 years there have been an average of 19 construction workers a year killed on the job. Construction workers make up only seven per cent of workers covered by the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) but account for nine per cent of WSIB recognized lost time injuries and 26 per cent of fatal workplace accidents.

Falls similar to the accident involving Sarmad Iskander are the leading cause of construction deaths. There is absolutely no reason for deaths from falls to ever occur. Fall protection systems for every conceivable situation are available and laws are in place requiring employers to ensure they are used. Deaths from falls can only occur in a situation where employers refuse to take up their responsibilities and government is lax in enforcement of the existing laws. The same is also true for other major causes of construction worker deaths such as electrocution, vehicle accidents and trenching accidents.

As construction workers and other workers mourn the latest workplace deaths, they are also demanding an end to the epidemic of workplace deaths and injuries. Working people are demanding that governments impose restrictions on the way the construction monopolies and other employers operate so they cannot kill and maim workers with impunity.

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High Frequency of Worker Deaths Shows
Ontario Safety Not Improving

The recent tragic deaths of two Toronto area construction workers in separate accidents during the week of June 23 are part of a continuing epidemic of death and injury faced by workers in Ontario workplaces. The continuing high frequency of such fatal accidents expose as fraud the government claims that it has taken action for improving the health and safety situation of Ontario workers.

The Ministry of Labour (MOL) and the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) are claiming to have improved workplace safety. As proof, they cite the recent reductions in workers' compensation benefit payouts and the reduction in the number and length of WSIB lost time injury compensation claims. If this was true that safety has been improved, wouldn't the alleged safety improvements also be reflected in a reduction in the frequency of fatal accidents? But there has been no reduction in the number of fatal accidents.

In 2012, the last year with a full MOL/WSIB report, a total of 70 workers were killed on the job in Ontario. This is a greater number than the average number of fatal workplace accidents over the previous five-year period (a yearly average of 69 deaths from 2008-12). These figures do not include the 222 workers who died in 2012 from exposure to hazardous materials.

The government is able to hide the extent of workplace injuries and health hazards through ruthless suppression of workers' compensation claims. It is even able to suppress claims made by the families of workers who died from workplace exposure to hazardous materials. But it is difficult to hide workplace deaths resulting from traumatic incidents. The continuing high frequency of fatal workplace accidents shows that, contrary to the claims of the MOL and the WSIB, the overall health and safety situation of Ontario workers is not improving.

The WSIB reduced benefit payments to injured workers by $500 million over the past year. These cuts were the first installment of a series of cuts to injured worker benefits mandated by the Liberal government. The government plans to extract up to $13 billion from the workers' compensation system in the name of a bookkeeping fraud known as the "WSIB unfunded liability." The WSIB, is achieving the results demanded by the government through aggressive claim denials, claims suppression, illegal changes to benefit policies and other crooked measures. Employers will benefit from this scheme and are fully collaborating with the government and WSIB.

Reductions in the number of claims for compensation by injured workers and the length of the claims are the result of claim suppression schemes and not a result of improved workplace health and safety. The assertion of the WSIB and MOL that benefit payout reductions are an indicator of an improvement in health and safety is a cover up. They cover up the government's refusal to provide just compensation to injured workers and refusal to guarantee all workers safe and healthy workplaces.

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