Lawsuit Against Canadian Pacific in Lac-Mégantic Tragedy

Residents and Activists Demand Answers and Rail Safety Protection

A civil trial began in Sherbrooke, Quebec on September 21 against Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) in connection with the July 6, 2013 Lac-Mégantic train tragedy. On that terrible night, a train carrying highly flammable oil -- falsely labeled as lightly flammable -- derailed, caught fire and exploded in downtown Lac-Mégantic, causing the death of 47 people, serious injuries to numerous others and severe post-traumatic stress for the population, as well as very extensive property damage.

The purpose of the trial is to determine CP's responsibility in the tragedy. CP, along with World Fuel, the broker that purchased the shale oil from North Dakota companies, and the Irving refinery in New Brunswick that was to receive the oil, were the three main actors in the transaction and the cargo's transportation. The Canadian government was also a key player, because of the deregulation it granted to the rail industry. 

The lawsuit alleges that CP knowingly contracted out the transportation of the rail cars for the last leg of the journey to an American company, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Canada (MMA), in order to save money. MMA was notorious for the dilapidated state of its tracks, which were completely unsuitable for the transportation of such material, as well as for its appalling performance from a health and safety perspective. Through a backroom deal with Transport Canada, MMA was even allowed to operate its trains with only one employee on board. CP claims that its liability with regard to transportation ended once the train left its tracks. 

The litigation was instigated through a class action lawsuit on behalf of the victims of the tragedy, by the Quebec government and by insurers. In 2016, as part of the MMA bankruptcy proceedings, the court incorporated the victims' class action lawsuit which resulted in over 20 companies paying out compensation, a portion of which went to the victims in exchange for a guarantee that no subsequent legal action would be taken against them. CP, denying any responsibility in the tragedy, refused to participate in the agreement and to pecuniary compensation. The trial is expected to last approximately seven months.

The Coalition of Citizens and Organizations Committed to Railway Safety in Lac-Mégantic, which has fought tirelessly since the tragedy to ensure the public's safety as well as for rail safety for all communities in Canada, is monitoring the developments in the trial very closely.

"The trial is of great interest to us because we hope to learn the truth about the responsibility of the various actors in this tragedy," Robert Bellefleur, the Coalition's spokesperson, told Workers' Forum. "In fact, the Canadian government has, and continues to refuse to hold a public commission of inquiry to get to the bottom of this tragedy."

In its June submission to the hearings on rail safety of the House of Commons' Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities the Coalition reiterated its call for an independent public inquiry into the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe.

The Coalition stated that the inquiry's mandate "would be to shed light on the causes and actors of this tragedy and to make the necessary recommendations to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again in Canada."

In a discussion with Workers' Forum, Bellefleur also reiterated the Coalition's demand, on behalf of the residents of Lac-Mégantic, that the resumption of oil transportation in the region not be allowed, either on the current rail line or on the bypass route that the federal government has committed to building since the tragedy.

"Since the tragedy, trains loaded with propane gas, sulphuric acid, and other hazardous materials continue to circulate on the same rails, on the same slope and at an eight-degree curve at the very bottom, right in the heart of downtown Lac-Mégantic. In addition, it has not been ruled out that oil may again start to flow through Lac-Mégantic. And the trains are getting longer and heavier. Especially with the current increase in the price of oil, the transport of oil by train becomes more profitable. Rail transportation is more expensive than by pipeline, but with the price of oil going up, there's more room for rail. We're calling for a permanent moratorium on oil transportation through Lac-Mégantic, including through the bypass route," Bellefleur said.

With regard to the bypass, the situation has become even more uncertain since CP purchased the now-defunct MMA rail network in 2019 from the New York-based company that took over MMA's assets following its bankruptcy. This puts CP in a position to be able to impose changes to the original route and design of the infrastructure for this track, which it is to assume ownership of following construction. This could result in cost overruns and new delays, and the terms of the agreement between Transport Canada and CP are shrouded in secrecy.

Lac Megantic, July 10, 2016.

Shortly before the recent federal election, Robert Bellefleur told the local press:

"I want to remind current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers that the bypass project was originally intended primarily to ensure the recovery and safety of the population of the Lac-Mégantic region. This infrastructure project was intended to promote the social healing of a community shattered by the neglect of previous governments and not to gratuitously satisfy the operational needs of a wealthy railway company like CP. Currently, we have no information on the timeline for the completion of the bypass. There's talk about it being completed in 2023, but the land has yet to be acquired and the plans and specifications have not even been drawn up. What we want is transparency."

As they have done since the beginning, Lac-Mégantic residents and activists are calling for the protection of rail safety for the town and region and for all communities in Canada. In particular, they are calling for an end to self-regulation of the rail industry. They are calling upon Transport Canada to play its independent role as the guardian of rail safety for everyone living along rail tracks by exercising control over railway regulations and operations. 

Workers' Forum once again expresses its utmost respect for the Lac-Mégantic community and the activists defending rail safety.

This article was published in

October 25, 2021 - No. 99

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