The Trump administration’s move to relax an Obama-era chemical safety regulation put in place after an explosion at a fertilizer plant is the latest example of the White House easing rules established in the wake of disasters.
Trump’s professed goal of rolling back “job-killing” regulations has led to weakening mandates proposed or enacted after three of the worst industrial accidents of the last decade: The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in Japan and 2013 derailment and explosion of an oil train in Canada.
“There is a clear pattern of the Trump administration targeting rules that were put in place in response to massive public health, safety, and environmental disasters,” said Amit Narang, a regulatory policy expert with the watchdog group Public Citizen. “The public expects our government to respond to these types of public disasters with regulations that protect them.”
Backers of Trump’s drive to repeal rules say that there is a natural rush to regulate after a high-profile disaster that can go too far.
“Some of these rollbacks come with the wisdom of time to say ‘we went further then we needed to go now that we have more information,’” said Dan Bosch, director of regulatory policy for the American Action Forum, a Republican-aligned think tank.
Representatives of the White House reject the notion the rollbacks risk safety.
“Those trying to connect any health and safety risks across the country” to those efforts “are dangerously wrong — there is no evidence to support such ridiculous claims,” said Chase Jennings, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. “The administration is focused on relieving undue burdens and protecting public health and safety.”
Still, the changes have set off alarm bells with public safety advocates.
“They have picked out some of the most important safety regulations,” said Fred Millar, an independent rail consultant. “The Trump deregulation bank has a withdrawal window that’s wide open and industry is taking advantage.”
In 2015, the U.S. Transportation Department imposed regulations meant to address a series of fiery crude-train derailments, most notably the one that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. Canadian officials determined that a crew member’s failure to appropriately secure the train was one of nearly 20 causes of the derailment.
U.S. regulators mandated, over the objections of the industry, electronically controlled pnuematic brakes to shorten stopping distances. But that measure was rescinded by the Trump administration, which cited a lack of research showing the brakes were better and questions over whether the benefits were justified by the costs.
In some cases, the Obama rules have been left intact while some key provisions have been eased. That opens the administration to complaints it is rolling back safeguards even when it keeps many pieces untouched.
For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to rescind portions of a risk management law following the 2013 fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people in West, Texas, retained provisions cheered by safety advocates such mandating coordination with first responders and emergency exercise requirements.
But it axed mandates that required more public disclosure about what chemicals are stored at industrial sites, automatic third-party audits after accidents and a rule that companies assess safer technology options as a way of reducing risk.
That was also the case with the White House’s decision to relax some of the mandates imposed by the Obama administration in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed 11 workers and unleashed the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
In May, the Interior Department rewrote about a fifth of that 2016 Obama rule, easing mandates for real-time monitoring of offshore operations and third-party certifications of emergency equipment.
But the department rebuffed oil industry pressure to lift a specific requirement for how much pressure must be maintained inside wells to keep them in check. Instead, companies now can apply for exceptions to that “safe drilling margin” requirement earlier in the permitting process.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with three of its five members Trump appointees, voted 3-2 in January to strip down a rule requiring nuclear plants to upgrade their protection against flooding and earthquakes that was meant to prevent a Fukushima-style meltdown from occurring in the U.S.
The nuclear industry argues that rather than redesign facilities to address increased flood risks, it’s enough to focus on storing emergency generators, pumps, and other equipment in concrete bunkers.
Edwin Lyman, acting director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, disagrees.
“It’s just bad science and bad policy because of the philosophy that we are not going to impose any new regulations,” Lyman said. “It’s dismissing science, it’s not taking into account the impact of climate change that could lead to more severe flooding events.”
When things go wrong, those in power often promise to make it right. But do they? In this series, The Times is going back to the scene of major news events to see if those promises were kept.
The runaway train hurtled into the center of town shortly after midnight, with no one aboard to apply the brakes or sound a whistle to warn residents about the deadly cargo bearing down on them.
When it reached a tight curve, the freight train, going 65 miles an hour, derailed. Amid a deafening, horrific screech of rupturing metal, more than a million gallons of fuel spilled and exploded.
The blast incinerated most of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. In a community of just 5,600, 47 people were killed.
The scale of the disaster on July 6, 2013, not only shocked and outraged Canada, it also raised alarm in towns and cities across the country, where a growing number of trains, laden with oil, explosives and toxic chemicals, were rolling through urban centers day and night.
Canada’s government, and the railway industry, vowed to quickly address people’s fear.
“This is an unbelievable disaster that has occurred here,” Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister at the time, said after inspecting the destruction. “They’ll be investigations to ascertain what has occurred to make sure that it can’t happen again.”
And there have been changes — at least on paper.
Railways are now required to look for alternative routes to keep shipments of dangerous goods out of urban areas, but trains filled with risky cargo still rumble day and night through Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto and other cities.
Not much has changed since that night in Lac-Mégantic, either. Six years after the catastrophe, the core of the town remains a wasteland, with much of the once-vibrant downtown a weed lot.
The emotional scars have been slow to heal, too.
“People are still afraid,” said Jamie Stearns, who owns a local landscaping business. “Personally, when I hear the whistle of the train, it comes right back — the shivers.”
WHAT WE FOUND
Setting the Stage for Disaster: Deregulation
The Lac-Mégantic derailment came at a time of surging oil and gas production in Canada. It also followed a trend of deregulation that had turned over much in the way of safety oversight to the railways themselves.
In its report after the accident, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board portrayed the company responsible, the now-defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, as a threadbare operation at which saving time and cutting costs trumped safety.
But the railway’s use of a skeleton crew, vulnerable tanker cars and routes going straight through population centers were all allowed under the country’s regulations.
“Lac-Mégantic was the violent consequence of a series of policy decisions interacting — whether they were deregulation or privatization or austerity — and the consequence was that there was a steady erosion of safety,” said Bruce Campbell, who prepared several studies on the accident as executive director of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, a research group in Ottawa.
After the accident, Canada’s government did reverse that deregulation trend, increasing its oversight of railways, adding inspectors and introducing new safety rules. And for the first time, railways now must be licensed by Transport Canada to operate. If the regulator finds serious safety violations, it can immediately revoke that permit.
But the efficacy of some of these changes remains an open question. And one of the most important new rules comes with a loophole enormous enough for train after train to barrel right through.
WHAT WE FOUND
Avoid Urban Centers? Easier Said Than Done.
In 2016, the government ordered all railways to start examining the routes they were using to ship dangerous cargos. They were told to see if they could identify alternative runs using remote rail lines instead of ones threading through urban areas.
In theory, this regulation could help reduce the chances of a deadly accident in a populated area. In practice, however, little has changed on the ground — or, more accurately, in the centers of Canada’s most populous cities.
Locomotives pulling tanker cars heavy with oil, propane and noxious chemicals continue to be a common sight in the hearts of several major Canadian cities. Look up at any time in downtown Winnipeg, and you’re likely to see tanker cars passing by on the city’s busy elevated tracks.
Transport Canada, the department responsible for making and enforcing rail regulations, said the railways did not give it reports on how many dangerous-goods trains, if any, they’ve moved away from cities following their obligatory safety reviews.
Canadian Pacific and Canadian National, the two major railways that haul the overwhelming majority of Canada’s rail traffic, referred questions about dangerous cargo in cities to the Railway Association of Canada, their lobbying group. In an email, the association declined to provide any statistics about reroutings,citing “security purposes.”
The closing of some rail lines in remote areas to increase efficiency, combined with the fact that many Canadian communities were built around railway tracks, means “there really aren’t any alternatives,” Mr. Naish said.
The Federal Railroad Administration requires similar reviews of routes with dangerous cargos in the United States. But in a statement, it suggested that dangerous cargo is rarely rerouted because “alternatives may increase overall transit time, require additional handling, or introduce other operational risks.”
WHAT WE FOUND
Improved Technology, but Unproven
The government’s most notable change after Lac-Mégantic: All tanker cars of the type that crumpled in the derailment have stopped carrying anything that is toxic or can explode or burn.
The cars that ruptured were an old design, called DOT-111, with limited crash resistance.
Lisa Raitt, who became the transport minister in the Conservative government nine days after the crash, announced that this design would be gradually phased out, and that by 2025, these tankers would no longer be carrying flammable products.
Her successor, Marc Garneau, who took office in 2015 in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, twice sped up that schedule, and in January of this year, the goal was met.
Taking the place of many of the old tankers is a new design, with substantial reinforcement and other safety improvements, called DOT-117. But limitations in crash testing mean that while the new cars promise much on paper, their effectiveness in a real-world disaster remains to be seen.
“We won’t know for sure until we see how they perform in actual accidents,” said Ms. Fox, of the safety board. “I know that’s not very reassuring.”
WHAT WE FOUND
To Control a Train, 2 Is Better Than 1
Another critical policy change was an order given just weeks after the disaster obligating all trains in Canada to once again carry at least two crew members. That only one worker was operating the Lac-Mégantic train was a major factor in the catastrophe.
In the United States, the Federal Railroad Administration recently abandoned a proposed regulation that would have required at least two-person crews on most trains.
Thomas Harding was the lone engineer on the train, which was carrying crude oil from North Dakota to an oil refinery in New Brunswick. Mr. Harding took control of the train in Montreal.
Late in the evening of July 5, he stopped for the night in Nantes, a hamlet uphill from Lac-Mégantic, and parked his train on the mainline.
Though exhausted after the journey, Mr. Harding took the laborious step of setting the mechanical hand brakes — a train’s version of an automobile parking brake — on the five lead locomotives, an equipment car and an empty boxcar.
That was the first big mistake. Investigators calculated that Mr. Harding should have also secured the hand brakes on 18 to 26 of the tank cars before retiring to his hotel.
But the corner cutting by the solo worker initially didn’t matter. The train stayed put because he had also applied air brakes on the locomotives. Not long after he left, however, a small fire broke out in the lead locomotive. A fire crew extinguished it and, following the railway’s instructions, shut down the engine.
That was the second big mistake. Turning off the lead engine also cut off the brakes’ air compressor, eliminating the pneumatic pressure needed to keep the brakes applied. When the brakes ultimately released about an hour after midnight, the train began rolling downhill for seven miles to Lac-Mégantic, gaining speed all the way.
WHAT WE FOUND
Making sure that no one now operates a train alone was applauded by safety experts. But requiring multiple crew members is no guarantee runaway trains won’t happen.
The number of runaway trains in Canada has increased by about 10 percent over the last decade, with 62 trains taking off on their own in 2017. In February, three Canadian Pacific employees died when a runaway train that had been parked on a mountain slope in British Columbia flew off a bridge.
Hand brakes have not evolved all that much since the 19th century, and applying them is slow, backbreaking work.
“Hand brakes are good,” said Ms. Fox. “But they need to have some other defense, because hand brakes can be defective.”
There’s little sign, however, that Canadian railways are adopting new technologies, like electronically controlled brakes, that have the potential to stop runaway trains.
WHAT WE FOUND
A Barren, Devastated Downtown
The fuel explosion that took 47 lives also destroyed 40 buildings in Lac-Mégantic, a resort and industrial town abutting a scenic lake.
A $150 million decontamination program led to the demolition of another 37 buildings and the removal of 294,000 tons of rubble and soil. Adding to the pain of many survivors, the first thing to be rebuilt at the disaster site were the rail tracks themselves, an important lifeline for the town’s factories.
While new roads now run through the former disaster zone, most of it is barren, filled with underused parking lots.
Driving through the wound that was once downtown remains too painful for many in Lac-Mégantic. In a disaster that killed nearly 1 percent of the town, it’s not a question of if residents knew someone who died, but how many.
“Every time I cross this desert, I feel death’s been there, and it’s still there,” said Gilbert Carette, a member of a citizens’ rail safety group formed after the wreck. “The best medicine to heal people’s minds would be to fill this empty place.”
For many residents, the most important project is moving the tracks to the northern edge of town. Last year, the federal and Quebec governments agreed to pay for a $100 million rail bypass, but the estimated completion date is four years away.
The town’s reconstruction office does have ambitious plans for a new downtown, but Julie Morin, mayor since 2017, said that developers would stay away until the train line was moved. She does not anticipate that anything approaching the old downtown will return for a generation.
“It’s really haunting us, cause we’re still living this tragedy,” said Mr. Carette. “People have that feeling that everything is frozen downtown.”
The still-desolate landscape also serves as a wrenching reminder for the country as a whole about the risks that come with the railways running through so many towns.
Ms. Fox, of the safety board, said the disaster had left a mixed legacy.
“It would be unfair to say that no progress has been made,” she said. “But I also think it would be inaccurate to say that we can sit back and relax. Because there’s still more that can be done.”
The Takeaway: A concerted push on safety, but trains still pull deadly cargo through downtowns across Canada.
Correction:An earlier version of this article misstated when Lisa Raitt was transport minister. She became minister nine days after the crash; she was not the minister at the time of the crash.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto and currently lives in Ottawa. He has reported for The Times about Canada for more than a decade.
A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: Years After Fiery Crash, Deadly Cargo Still Rides the Rails.
3 former MMA rail workers acquitted in Lac-Mégantic disaster trial
Locomotive engineer and 2 others found not guilty of criminal negligence causing 47 deaths
Alison Brunette · CBC News · 19 January 2018
Jurors have acquitted the three former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway employees charged with criminal negligence causing death in the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.
Locomotive engineer Tom Harding, 56, rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, and operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, were all charged after the derailment of a runaway fuel train early on July 6, 2013. Several tankers, carrying highly volatile crude oil exploded, turning downtown Lac-Mégantic into an inferno and killing 47 people.
There was an audible gasp in the courtroom when the verdict was delivered early Friday afternoon.
Labrie couldn’t hold back tears as he described his relief. He said that his thoughts are with the community of Lac-Mégantic.
“I would like to say the people of Lac-Mégantic, what they went through, they showed a huge amount of courage,” he said.
“I wasn’t intending to cry. But I can tell you it was difficult — it was a long process.”
The eight men and four women on the jury have been deliberating since Thursday morning, Jan. 11, at the Sherbrooke, Que., courthouse, after a marathon trial which began last September.
The jurors have endured countless hours of technical testimony from train experts, heard dramatic audio recordings of emergency workers and railway employees from the night of the explosions, and listened to other former MMA employees called as Crown witnesses describe a work environment with little regard for safety standards and no budget for training.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas thanked the jury members for their work, telling them that the case wasn’t easy.
“You are the most enthusiastic jury I have ever seen,” he said.
Last, ill-fated journey
Harding, who pitched in on the night of the disaster, helping emergency responders detach the fuel cars that hadn’t exploded, was the driver of the ill-fated fuel train.
He picked up the 73-tanker car train in Farnham, Que., 60 kilometres southeast of Montreal, on the afternoon of July 5, 2013.
Late that evening, he left the train idling on the tracks in the village of Nantes, 13 kilometres west of Lac-Mégantic, where it was to be picked up by an American crew the following day.
During the three-month trial, the court heard how a fire broke out in the smokestack of that locomotive shortly after Harding left it unattended.
Firefighters arrived and extinguished the fire, shutting down the locomotive’s engine and breakers, which disabled the air brakes that were securing the train. Jurors heard that less than an hour later, the runaway train barrelled down the tracks, derailing in downtown Lac-Mégantic. The resulting explosions engulfed the town in flames.
Several of the Crown’s 31 witnesses described Harding as an experienced, knowledgeable and helpful co-worker, which the Crown alluded to in closing arguments.
“Despite all comments on Harding, on July 5, he failed to do his job,” prosecutor Sacha Blais told the jury.
“A careful engineer would have foreseen the danger.”
Much of the Crown’s testimony revolved around the seven handbrakes Harding applied to the train, whether the engineer tested them and how many would have been sufficient to secure the train properly.
In closing arguments, Harding’s lawyer, Charles Shearson, countered that the engineer followed the MMA’s general operating instructions.
Shearson listed a number of other factors that contributed to the derailment, including the safety of one-man crews and MMA’s failure to conduct a risk assessment on the consequences of parking a heavy fuel train on a slope at Nantes. The Transportation Safety Board’s report identified the rail line between Nantes and Lac-Mégantic as the second steepest grade of any stretch of track in Canada.
Accused waived right to mount defence
Harding, as well as the other two accused, waived their right to mount a formal defence to the charges.
Labrie, the rail traffic controller on duty that night, was on shift 200 kilometres away in Farnham, relying on information being provided to him by telephone, his lawyer, Guy Poupart, reminded the jury in closing arguments.
Poupart said the Crown failed to “demonstrate in any way that a rail traffic controller placed in the same position as Labrie and given the same information, would have acted any differently.”
Demaître, MMA’s senior manager in Quebec, was at home near Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and on call on the night of the disaster. The Crown argued he had been negligent, ignoring complaints about the lead locomotive’s mechanical defects.
Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster Was Avoidable Corporate Crime
By Justin Mikulka, October 24, 2017 – 17:39
Damning new testimony from an engineer of the locomotive involved in the deadly 2013 oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, reveals several ways corporate cost-cutting directly led to the accident, which claimed 47 lives.
We already knew for certain that a fire on the locomotive, which had been left parked and running for the night, per standard practice, was the direct cause of the disaster. That blaze resulted in the local fire department, directed by a rail company employee, to turn off the power to the locomotive. However, that action also shut off power to the air brakes, which eventually failed and caused the train to roll down the tracks into downtown Lac-Mégantic, where it exploded and leveled the area.
However, in newly released testimony reported by CBCNews, we learn about a troubling exchange between train engineer François Daigle, who had driven the oil train two days before its fiery derailment, and his supervisor:
Daigle said on that trip he noticed the locomotive kept losing speed and produced black smoke.
Daigle told the court he reported the problems to his supervisor, Jean Demaître, and sent a fax to the repair shop in Maine at the end of his shift.
Daigle said he asked Demaître to change the lead locomotive because of the repair issues.
“What was Demaître’s answer?” Crown prosecutor Marie-Éve Phaneuf asked.
“You’re complaining again?” Daigle said Demaître told him, continuing: “This is what we have, and at any rate, you are going to be receiving your pension after me.”
Daigle said he understood that to mean no changes would be made.
If that locomotive had been replaced, the Lac-Mégantic disaster most likely would not have happened.
A Train Much, Much Too Heavy
A second factor in the accident was related to its braking system. Once the fire department shut off the locomotive’s brakes, the train was only held in place by manual handbrakes, which proved insufficient for the train’s weight.
In Daigle’s testimony, which is part of the criminal trial of three of his Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) colleagues, he revealed that the train was almost 50 percent heavier than regulations allowed. The train’s maximum allowed weight was 6,300 tonnes. The actual weight was 9,100 tonnes. Would the handbrakes have been sufficient to hold the train in place if it wasn’t so much heavier than permitted?
In his testimony Daigle also stated that management would not allow him to refuse to operate that train even when he knew it was overweight.
On top of all this, we already knew that it was company policy for employees to save time by not engaging a train’s third “automatic” braking system. Even with everything else going wrong, if the automatic braking system had been engaged, this disaster would likely have been averted and 47 lives spared.
It’s Not Them We Want
Less than a week after the 2013 disaster, Martin Lukacs, columnist for The Guardian, wrote a prophetic statement: “the explosion in Lac-Mégantic is not merely a tragedy. It is a corporate crime scene.” He couldn’t have been more right.
At DeSmog we have previously detailed the many other cost-cutting steps that led to this oil train disaster.
However, there was one other person who certainly knew who was to blame long before Daigle’s testimony was released. Thomas Harding is the engineer currently on trial with two fellow employees, none of them executives. In 2014 I wrote a piece about Lac-Mégantic for DeSmog, titled, “Should CEOs Get Jail Time For Oil-By-Rail Accidents Like Lac Megantic?” In that story, I included the following description of the crowd of people who watched as Harding and the others were taken into court after their arrests:
When Harding and two other crew members were frog marched into court after their arrest, Ghislain Champagne, the father of a woman who died in the Lac-Mégantic accident, yelled out, “It’s not them we want.”
But perhaps the management at MMA would be inclined to reply: “Are you complaining again?”