Lac Megantic mystery: Responsible, anyone?

On July 10th, a freight train consisting of 72 cars including five engines, crashed into the town of Lac Megantic. Many of the cars, tankers carrying oil, burned in a devastating fire and explosion that destroyed a significant portion of the town and cost some fifty lives. The crash occurred near midnight, near a popular social area.

The freight cars were tossed about like firecrackers on the fourth of July. The engines were not. So now for the first dumb question:

How exactly did the engines get a kilometre away, apparently undamaged, beyond the tankers’ crash site? And, is this not convenient for the rail company, who owns these undamaged engines? And, who owns the tanker cars? Are they owned by the rail company, or the shipper, or the oil company?

The oil company, World Fuel Services Corp, is refusing to help pay for the cleanup. The rail company, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, is also refusing to pay. So now for the second dumb question:

How much liability do transporters of dangerous goods have, when they destroy part of a town and kill tens of ordinary citizens? Apparently not much.

There is, perhaps, a precedent for this. Halliburton recently pleaded guilty to destroying evidence related to the 2010 Gulf oil spill (Deepwater Horizon). Apparently they recommended to BP that the Macondo well contain 21 centralisers, but found in their (lost) simulation that six was about the same. Unhappily, the Government claimed that Halliburton ordered workers to destroy computer simulations that showed little difference between using six and 21 centralisers. So, if you’re waiting for the last dumb questions, here they are:

Are six so much cheaper than twenty-one that the simulation would be deleted and the client advised to take the less expensive risk? And, what do you suppose Halliburton’s penalty is for this admission of guilt? Is there a maximum under US law? Is it a maximum US$200,000 statutory fine? Go here if you don’t believe this.

Am I too cynical in saying that, it appears that business is protected, sometimes by law, from fines that reflect their admitted culpability and the damages thereby caused? In the USA case of Halliburton, I think not. Am I too cynical in thinking that business is protected, sometimes by the courts, when they kill people through disastrous derailments that don’t damage their engines? In the Canadian case of Lac Megantic, I think not.

They are dumb questions. In a cynical view, the law protects businesses that make mistakes, sometimes to increase profits, from the real cost of their actions. If a group of citizens killed townsfolk, we’d go to jail. If we blew up an oil rig, killing eleven, we’d go to jail. If we polluted a major coastline, we’d go to jail. If we spilled a litre of oil into a sewer, we’d go to jail. If we left a car to roll downhill, we’d probably go to jail if anyone was killed – manslaughter.

Final dumb question: Is it about time that corportations ceased to be treated as people? Should instead their officers be treated as the deciders of their decisions? Responsible, anyone?

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