On July 6, 2013, 74 unattended freight train cars carrying Bakken Formation crude oil rolled down a 1.2% grade from the town of Nantes and into the downtown area of the Town of Lac-Mégantic. The ensuing derailment resulted in a fire and explosion of multiple tank cars.
The devastation was far reaching and resulted in forty-two people being confirmed dead, with five more missing or presumed dead. Approximately 30 buildings, representing almost half of the Town’s centre were destroyed with more buildings needing to be demolished as a result of the petroleum hydrocarbon contamination.
According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s report the train was carrying approximately 7.7 million litres of petroleum crude oil in 72 Class 111 tank cars. The train engineer parked the train on a descending grade on the main track, applied the hand brakes on all five locomotives and shut down all but the lead locomotive. The applicable rules require hand brakes alone be capable of holding a train. This must be verified by a test. According to the report the air brakes were left on during the test meaning that the train was actually being held by a combination of air brakes and hand brakes. After the test was completed, the engineer contacted the rail traffic controller in Farnham, Quebec, to advise that the train was secure.
The engineer then contacted the rail traffic controller in Bangor, Maine, and indicated that the lead locomotive had experienced mechanical difficulties throughout the trip, and that excessive black and white smoke was coming from its smoke stack. The parties agreed to leave the train as it was and deal with any concerns relating to the smoke the following morning.
Shortly after the engineer left, the Nantes Fire Department responded to a 911 call reporting a fire on the train. The locomotive’s fuel supply was shut down and the firefighters moved the electrical breakers inside the cab to the off position which is consistent with railway instructions. With all the locomotives shut down, the air compressor no longer supplied air to the air brake system. As air leaked from the brake system, the main air reservoirs were slowly depleted, gradually reducing the effectiveness of the air brakes until they reached a point at which the combination of locomotive air brakes and hand brakes could no longer hold the train, and it began to roll downhill toward Lac-Mégantic, which was just over seven miles away.
Montreal Maine & Atlantic Canada Co. has commenced commercial proceedings pursuant to the Companies Creditors Arrangement Act and its parent company Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Ltd. has filed for bankruptcy protection. We note that these filings appear to have occurred within six weeks of a Motion to Authorize a class action suit against the companies.
In addition to the serious impacts to the Town and grave losses of life, the train derailment also resulted in significant impacts on the natural environment. On February 5, 2018 Montreal Maine and Atlantic Canada Co. was found guilty of unlawfully depositing or permitting the deposit of crude oil to the Mégantic Lake and Chaudière River contrary to the Fisheries Act. Crude oil is a deleterious substance and the two water bodies in the area are frequented by fish.
Montreal Maine & Atlantic Canada Co. was fined $1,000,000 which will be directed to the Environmental Damages Fund and used to support projects focused on Mégantic Lake and Chaudière River both of which were impacted by the spill of crude oil. Environment and Climate Change Canada is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the pollution prevention provisions of the Fisheries Act that prohibit the deposit of deleterious substances, in this case oil, into water frequented by fish.
In addition to the Fisheries Act charge, six of the accused individuals pled guilty under the Railway Safety Act to one count of failing to ensure, after apply hand brakes, that a sufficient force was present to prevent any movement. Five of the six individuals were fined $50,000 each, being the maximum fine permitted under the Railway Safety Act. The sixth individual who was the conductor of the freight train was given a conditional sentence of six months’ imprisonment with strict conditions, also being the maximum permitted under the Railway Safety Act.