Mr. Burkhardt, you make me sick

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.

My take

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.

The facts:

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?


The dog days of summer

I realize this is hardly hard-hitting news.

Lots of people in my NDG neighbourhood have dogs and appreciate it when businesses offer water bowls outdoors for their dogs. A local franchise of a supermarket chain called Provigo wants to offer dog owners a designated place to tie up their four-legged friends while they shop. The dogs get bottled water in stainless steel dog bowls.

I wrote an article about it  for the July 9 issue of the Free Press, a paper in my neck of the woods (my article is on page 14).

Unfortunately the photo I wanted to accompany the story never ran. Instead another a photo I took was published. It offers a view of the supermarket’s new “doggy bar” area, which looks like a bleak stretch of pavement with no dogs in sight.

Here’s the story, plus the photo I wanted published and waited hours to take. There was a heat wave and it took over two days of searching to find a dog using the space!

Provigo provides place to tether dogs

By Stephanie O’Hanley

The Provigo store on Monkland Ave. has posted huge signs announcing in French an opportunity for shoppers with dogs — a “waiting room” on the Marcil Ave. side of the building reserved especially for four-legged friends.

The “waiting room” is not really a room at all, but a stretch of pavement about the length of two parking spaces where five rings for tethering dog leashes have been drilled into the wall. To quench dogs’ thirst, there are two dog bowls filled with bottled water.

The store’s director, Mélanie Boisclair, made the doggy “waiting room” happen about a month ago. At press time, Boisclair was on vacation, but the store’s service manager, Denis Gauthier, called client reaction “favourable,” with plenty of people using the space reserved for dogs.

Last week, when temperatures reached over 30°C, few dogs were seen at the new reserved space. Last Friday a Free Press reporter observed a woman tying her dog’s leash just under the awning near the store’s front entrance, only to be advised by customer Josée-Renée Trudeau about the doggy area on the Marcil side of the building. Rather than do this, the woman and her dog left.

“This is nice,” said Trudeau, of Provigo’s new initiative. “I used to have a dog. They’re in the shade and they have water.”

On Saturday morning, however, the Marcil side of the building was in in full sun. Old Orchard resident Anne Adams, a Provigo customer who was walking by the store with her small dog, Punkie, said she wouldn’t use the doggy “waiting room.”

“In this heat, it should be an area that’s not going to be boiling hot,” said Adams. “It should be on the other (Monkland) side, an area under the awning. She’s (Boisclair) made an effort, but it’s the wrong effort.”

Gauthier said as far as he knows, Boisclair has no plans to install an awning to protect dogs from sun, rain or snow.

Area resident Marie, who preferred to give only her first name, used the outdoor dog area on Saturday morning to briefly tether her dog Bérénice, a chocolate Labrador, as she shopped for groceries. “I’m happy,” she said. “I find this is terrific. I only hope people with more aggressive dogs will tie them at a distance,” she said, adding that when she shops, her dog is the only one there.

berenice, a labrador dog on a leash tied to wall, lies down on pavement waiting for her owner

How a small pill helps fight kidney disease

I don’t talk about this much.anatomical drawing of kidney

I’m a carrier for a rare hereditary kidney disease called Alport Syndrome.  The clue that confirms this  is I have something called persistent hematuria –  red blood cells can always be detected in my urine at the microscopic level. Other than being borderline anemic, this kidney disease doesn’t appear to have any effect on my health.

But I’m raising a son with the full-blown disease.

There are different types of Alport Syndrome.  In our family Alport Syndrome is X-linked, the most common form. As a woman I have two X chromosomes. There is a defective gene on one of the X chromosomes. Since I have one normal X chromosome and one defective X chromosome, this means there’s a 50/50 chance that any child I give birth to will either be a “carrier” for the disease if they’re a girl, or inherit the full-blown disease if they’re a boy.

I had no idea I was a “carrier” for kidney disease. We knew Alport Syndrome was in our family on my mom’s side. But we never considered the possibility that this disease could affect us.

I remember in my early 20s undergoing tests for a urinary tract infection and being told the lab had found microscopic amounts of  blood in my urine. When I asked about the cause, the health clinic’s staff told me they weren’t sure and not to worry since it wasn’t affecting my health.

It was during Christmas holidays in 1998 that we discovered the disease was lurking in our branch of the family. My then three-year-old nephew had been hospitalized for salmonella poisoning. While it seemed the antibiotics were working, the lab kept finding blood in his urine. Doctors at the Montreal Children’s asked if we had kidney disease in our family. We were in shock. We never imagined that a disease that affected several distant relatives could also belong to us.

Several of our male cousins underwent multiple kidney transplants and died young. They would go into kidney failure at age 20 or 21, suffer organ rejection after a several kidney transplants and die in their 40s. Learning that this disease could affect my nephew was frightening.

My mom and my sister were checked. Both had hematuria. I dragged my feet on getting checked because I knew I had it. I had my son tested and was saddened to learn I had passed the disease to him. My youngest sister discovered she’s a “carrier” too. This meant our mom had given birth to three daughters who are “carriers” for Alport Syndrome. What were the odds?

My nephew was referred to the Montreal Children’s Nephrology Department and soon after, my son. We lucked out at the Children’s when we met Dr. Paul Goodyer, the head of Pediatric Nephrology. Not only is he a fantastic doctor and researcher, he also happens to be Canada’s leading expert on Alport Syndrome.

Alport Syndrome is degenerative.  The mutation in the gene affects the collagen, the protein in the connective tissue. The disease may affect the inner ear and eyes (in our family the hearing loss typically associated with the disease doesn’t appear to be an issue) and it affects the tiny blood vessels in the kidney’s glomerular basement membranes. These membranes play an important role in kidney function. They act as filters, keeping red blood cells and protein in the body. They remove waste products and water from the blood and create urine.  Eventually the membranes break down and the kidneys no longer function properly, causing fluid and waste products to build up in the body. Right now dialysis and kidney transplants are the only treatments offered to people living with full-blown Alport Syndrome once the kidneys have failed.

There’s a blessing in having this disease detected early. Dr. Goodyer invited us to participate in an experiment of sorts. His theory was that by having my nephew and son take blood pressure medication daily,  this would slow down kidney failure by stopping the loss of protein (a condition known as proteinuria).

At first I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of having my young child on blood pressure pills. I dragged my feet about taking my son to nephrology appointments. He was already seeing the Pediatric Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic and later, the Pediatric Asthma Clinic.  Besides, with the way the disease progresses in our family, there appeared to be no chance of his kidneys starting to fail until he was in his teens. Eventually we went for the annual check-up and I followed Dr. Goodyer’s advice and filled the prescription. My sister was more diligent and my nephew has been taking Cozaar (Losartan) longer.

The medication appears to be working. My nephew turns 18 this year and so far there are no signs his kidneys are failing. Ditto for my son, who’s going on 16.

We don’t know how long these blood pressure pills will work their magic but Dr. Goodyer says it will likely be years before we even have to think about kidney transplants. And by then other ways of repairing the kidneys may even be viable.

In the meantime I am grateful for the blood pressure medication.

Who knew a small pill could make such a difference?