MONTREAL — “Most people in Lac-Mégantic agree that Tom Harding and Richard Labrie are just scapegoats,” André Blais, a leader of the Citizens’ Coalition and Groups Committee for Rail Safety, told the Militant in a Sept. 14 phone interview.
Harding and Labrie face government frame-up charges for the 2013 oil train derailment that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
“Those who are really guilty are Transport Canada and the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway owners,” Blais said. “The railroad cut staff and maintenance work, ran trains with a one-person crew, and Transport Canada didn’t do anything.”
Support for the rail workers is intertwined with a growing movement there to force the rail bosses to operate trains safely.
During the early morning hours of July 6, 2013, an unoccupied 72-car train operated by the now-bankrupt Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway careened down a slope, derailed, exploded and burned in Lac-Mégantic. It was filled with crude oil from the North Dakota Bakken shale oil fields, headed to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. The downtown area was reduced to smoldering ruins, and millions of gallons of toxic crude oil poured into the soil, the lake and the Chaudière River.
The MMA had been granted special dispensation by Transport Canada, as a cost-cutting measure, to run their oil trains with a one-person crew.
Harding, Labrie and low-level Montreal, Maine and Atlantic official Jean Demaître face life in prison on 47 counts each of criminal negligence causing death.
A government ban on crude oil transport through Lac-Mégantic expires in January 2016. U.S. hedge fund Fortress Investment Group bought up the bankrupt railway and set up the Central Maine and Quebec Railway, hoping to profit from resuming oil traffic.
For now, Bakken crude for the Irving Oil refinery, the largest in Canada, is taken by train to Albany, New York, and by boat down the Hudson River through New York City harbor and up the Atlantic Coast.
“Our original goal was to get 2,500 signatures by October on a petition calling for an injunction to stop Central Maine and Quebec from shipping dangerous goods and demanding that they repair their unsafe tracks through Lac-Mégantic,” André Lachapelle, a leader of the Sécu-Rail Committee-Lac Mégantic region, said by phone. “We got 2,500 in two weeks. We will present the petition to City Council Sept. 21 and we’re organizing a demonstration on Oct. 11.”
Uneasy about the widespread support for Harding and Labrie in Lac-Mégantic — where many are convinced Harding is a hero for risking his life to prevent nine additional oil tanker cars from exploding — the Quebec prosecutors are maneuvering to move the jury trial out of the area. The next court date is Dec. 1.
“We still don’t know what the prosecution’s case is,” Thomas Walsh, Harding’s lawyer, told the Militant.
Harding and Labrie have the support of their union, the United Steelworkers, which organized a defense fund; the Teamsters Rail Conference, Canada’s main rail union; the Transportation Division of the SMART union in the U.S.; and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen division of the Teamsters.
The rail barons have joined the government to target Harding for the disaster. “This is a failure of one individual,” charged Edward Burkhardt, former chairman of the MMA. The disaster happened “because of one person’s behavior,” Canadian Pacific Railway CEO Hunter Harrison told the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Railroad vital for region’s bossesThe railway through Lac-Mégantic is critical for the owners of Tafisa Canada Inc., the biggest particle board factory in North America. Tafisa employs about 350 workers, members of the Canadian Energy and Paper Workers Union. Central Maine and Quebec also serves dozens of saw mills in the area and pulp and paper operations just across the border in Maine.
“One woman at our petition table on the street said she would have signed but her husband advised her not to, since his employer, Tafisa, had made it clear that its employees should not sign,” Blais said.
Central Maine and Quebec is the lifeline for 50 businesses in Quebec’s Eastern Townships that employ 4,200 workers. But the big profits are in oil. This is behind the company’s drive to restart the oil trains.
The Citizen’s Committee has campaigned to expose conditions on the line. Blais and Lachappelle gave this reporter a portfolio of photos documenting rotting ties, broken spikes and other graphic examples of the dangerous shape of the railroad’s tracks.
Attacking the committee’s work, Central Maine and Quebec Railway President John Giles released an Aug. 12 “open letter,” saying “well-intentioned but misguided individuals” are promoting “myths.” He said, “There are no plans to restart movements of crude oil through the town of Lac-Mégantic at this time.” But, he added, “things change all the time.”
The Oct. 11 demonstration begins at 1:30 p.m. at the Lac-Mégantic Sports Centre, where victims were brought after the derailment and fire. The Dec. 1 court hearing is at the provincial court in the same building.
Join the defense campaign!
Funds for the legal defense of Tom Harding and Richard Labrie can be donated in Canadian currency at www.justice4USWrailworkers.org and in U.S. currency at www.tomhardingdefensefund.com. Solidarity should be sent to their union local — USW 1976 / Section locale 1976, 2360 De Lasalle, Suite 202, Montreal, QC H1V 2L1. Email: email@example.com.
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