Update, Aug. 10, 2013
If you’ve been following this story, you’ve no doubt heard that MMA has filed for bankruptcy protection in both Canada and the United States. On Thursday Quebec Superior Court justice Martin Castonguay granted MMA creditor protection.
My worst fears are confirmed.
I wish I felt hopeful about the future. Unless and until governments require railway companies to follow strict procedures when they’re transporting hazardous and dangerous materials, unless companies are required to invest far more in railway infrastructure and unless and until they must prove they have enough liability insurance to cover a disaster, I don’t think anything will change.
It looks like MMA will be sold. As today’s La Presse editorial cartoon shows, it seems Ed Burkhardt and company are washing their hands of this whole matter.
I feel heartsick.
Update, July 30, 2013
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway promised to send a legal response to Lac-Mégantic today.
I wonder what the company will say. The damage is done.
For an example of what I mean, here’s an art piece Lac-Mégantic artist Wynne Parkin posted on Twitter:
You may have heard about the tragic derailment that happened over three weeks ago in Lac-Mégantic.
On July 10 Edward Burkhardt, chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), visited Lac-Mégantic, the town whose downtown core was destroyed when a runaway MMA freight train crashed into the town, killing an estimated 47 people.
The visit followed a July 7 press release MMA issued stating shock over the incident and the company’s commitment to help the people of Lac-Mégantic “make a complete recovery as quickly as possible.”
During an impromptu press conference Burkhardt said of the tragedy and its effect on the citizens of Lac-Mégantic:
I’m absolutely with them in their tragedy. I feel personally absolutely rotten about it. But what can you do at this point?
He also made promises to the people of Lac-Mégantic.
We think we have plenty of responsibility here. Whether we have total responsibility is yet to be determined. We have plenty of it. We’re going to try to help out, everything we can with this community, working through the city and the Red Cross to do our best to meet our obligations to make repairs, put people back in homes and things like that.
This week Lac-Mégantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said MMA has stuck the town and the province of Quebec with over $4-million in unpaid bills to companies MMA hired to clean up the disaster site.
Roy-Laroche said the town has sent a lawyer’s letter to MMA asking for reimbursement but so far MMA has not responded.
The Toronto Star quotes Roy-Laroche as saying: “I hope that (MMA) will respect its responsibilities and act like a good corporate citizen.”
Background on the Lac-Mégantic tragedy:
An unattended train with 72 cars carrying crude oil ran away, then derailed, hurtling rail tankers into the heart of Lac-Mégantic, a beautiful town in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. The train cars crashed and burned and their contents exploded. The first explosion happened at around 1:15 a.m. on July 6, 2013. Other explosions followed, sending huge fireballs into the night sky . Police say 47 people reported missing in the area where the explosions happened are presumed dead. While forensic teams have identified many bodies and bone fragments, they may never find everyone who died.
Witnesses say the disaster area on Lac-Mégantic’s main street resembles a war zone. Losses include houses and apartment buildings, the town’s library and archives, the offices of the local newspaper, a pharmacy, restaurants, shops and bars, including the popular Musi-Café.
Trees are now blackened cinder sticks. A veterans’ waterfront park is scorched. Oil seeped into soil and sewers and the Quebec government estimates 100,000 litres of crude oil has poured into the Chaudière River. The province estimates 5.7 million litres of oil made its way into the air, water and soil during the disaster.
Cleaning up and rebuilding will cost a fortune. The Quebec government announced $60-million in aid for Lac-Mégantic. The federal government said it’s pledging $60-million with $25-million of that going to the Quebec government.
The cost may be higher than that, perhaps in the billions. MMA, its controlling company Rail World Inc. and its insurance company should foot the bill, not taxpayers.
I worry for the town that MMA will seek bankruptcy protection or morph into another entity to escape bills and lawsuits.
I was not impressed when Burkhardt took days to leave the Chicago area to visit Lac-Mégantic. Roy-Laroche reported that he never showed for a meeting she’d arranged but he told reporters she was “too busy” to see him.
I don’t like how Burkhardt assigns blame. First he said someone had tampered with the train, then he blamed firefighters for releasing air brakes when they shut off locomotive engines as they extinguished a fire that broke out after Tom Harding, the train’s engineer, had parked the train at the end of his shift before heading to bed. Harding was not the last person working for MMA to see the train but Burkhardt is now placing all the blame on him.
Some people were sympathetic to Burkhardt, said he cared but wasn’t good at expressing compassion, said Burkhardt lacked experience running press conferences and made a mistake by not bringing along an interpreter to help him communicate in French.
- Burkhardt graduated from Yale University. He’s no country bumpkin
- He is 74 years old and a career railway man who has overseen the privatization of railways in Britain, Estonia, New Zealand and Australia, among other places.
iswas (the Morning Sentinel reports Burkhardt gave up all ownership stakes in the company last year) the majority owner of Rail World Inc., the company that controls MMA. Rail World Inc’s mission is to “promote rail industry privatization by bringing together government bodies wishing to sell their stakes with investment capital and management skills.”
- A derailment happened under his watch when he headed the Wisconsin Central Railroad
- Burkhardt is in hiding (or appeared to be, in terms of answering Canadian media requests and legal notices). Lawyers representing people who have launched class action suits against MMA recently hired a private investigator to find Burkhardt’s home address and film Burkhardt being served court papers
The town and the provincial government, and the folks launching class action suits for victims should sue MMA for everything it owns, shut the railway down and seize its assets.
There’s no evidence Burkhardt and MMA are going to honour their promises. They are not showing good will.
There’s no excuse for this shameful and indefensible behaviour. The citizens of Lac-Mégantic deserve better.
What do you think? Do Burkhardt and the MMA deserve the benefit of the doubt now?