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It’s hard to imagine the lasting changes the rail disaster at Lac-Megantic will eventually bring to bear on Canadian society, though I do believe there will be many.
At this point it’s difficult to look past the staggering loss of life which, at last count had risen to 37 — another 13 souls still unaccounted for.
Every aspect of this tragic event — which saw a 73-car unmanned train loaded with crude oil roll into the Quebec community’s downtown core, derail and cause a series of powerful explosions — will be examined to their proper end.
Everything from rail safety regulations, to disaster management, public relations, environmental cleanup and the transport of hazardous goods will evolve as a result of this monumental disaster.
The crash of Air Ontario Flight 1363 near Dryden in 1989 and the three-year inquiry that would follow became recognized as a turning point for aviation, triggering an overhaul of the regulatory system in Canada. It stands to reason that a similar inquiry would be poised to sift the ashes of Lac-Megantic for the wisdom to never again repeat such a terrible thing.
Dryden can understand the scars these events leave on communities. What we could never hope to understand is the loss of so many of their own young, vibrant souls, of the physical heart of their community. So much has been taken from the people of Lac-Megantic through apparent carelessness. Like the clouds of fire visible from space imagine an equal and opposite reaction of pain and rage — itself a ball of flame that must eventually exhaust itself.
How many railway communities exist between Western oil reserves and the New Brunswick refineries to which the train in Lac-Megantic was headed? Every fire chief in every railroad town in Canada has to be re-thinking their disaster management plan around their rail corridors.
They should be.
The disaster at Lac-Megantic seems to be borne of rapidly evolving circumstances — of national oil production outpacing our ability to effectively move it, of the rail industry rapidly adapting to provide an alternative to an industry embroiled in political battles over multiple pipeline projects.
Next to nobody was shipping crude oil by rail two years ago. This year, the CBC reports some 14,000 rail cars will make their way to coastal refineries — projected to rise another 42 per cent by 2017.
Add to the mix a trend towards deregulation and a climate of austerity among regulatory overseers. Compound that further with a recession-driven corporate philosophy of ‘doing more with less’ (people) and you have, at the very least, a situation that warrants a meaningful reality check.
In 2007, Justice Virgil Moshansky, who led the inquiry following the Dryden air crash, harshly criticized the government for slashing budgets at Transport Canada that he believed would lead to a slackening of oversight and enforcement of safety regulations (he was speaking in regards to aviation), leaving it largely up to transportation companies to maintain standards.
Sadly, this is the mark of our times. Some people even call it ‘common sense’.
I will follow with interest the findings of the inquiries into the circumstances around this disaster, whether they rest on a lapse in vigilance of a single person, or upon the failure of an entire system which may be found to be ill-equipped to perform its role.
Perhaps the most nauseating prospect of all is the inevitability that the Lac-Megantic disaster becomes a focal point in a renewed debate over pipelines.