“Can they survive as a company?” Chop Hardenbergh, the Freeport-based editor of a newsletter on Northeast transportation, asked rhetorically on Maine Public Radio. Other experts are asking the same question. Even if the Maine company goes bankrupt, it’s just one small part of Rail World, Burkhardt’s international corporate empire.
Mike and I walked along the fence. But only through the gate could you glimpse a few charred, black tank cars, burned trees, and the ruins of a couple of buildings.
We walked to where the fence ended at the luminous lake. The day had turned out to be perfect: sunny, dry, not too hot. We could see yellow booms around the downtown shore. Most of the spilled oil, though, went into the Chaudière, an estimated 30,000 gallons pouring downstream.
That morning the Sherbrooke paper ran a story with the headline: “Le Maine prend une part du blâme.” Maine accepts part of the blame.
The Maine Legislature had passed a resolution expressing solidarity with the people of Lac-Mégantic. But . . . blame? Responsibility? Well, Democratic House majority leader Seth Berry was quoted as saying Maine politicians should have paid more attention to the tremendous quantities of oil being transported though the state.
Our high officials have responded by asking for studies. Governor Paul LePage ordered a rather weak review of rail safety in the state. (The governor’s office said it knew of no plans for LePage to go to Lac-Mégantic.) Maine’s congressional representatives, Chellie Pingree and Michael Michaud, asked the US Department of Transportation to do a study.
Of course, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board will study what happened. Its chief noted pointedly that an accident never occurs because of one individual. It “always involves the organization and the way that they operate.”
A Canadian columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, Martin Lukacs, was blunter. He wrote a piece headlined “Not Just Tragedy, But Corporate Crime.” He also heavily implicated the Canadian government and its “neoliberal” policy (in the US we call it “neoconservative”) of generally allowing railroads to regulate themselves. Similar deregulation has occurred in the US.
Lukacs pointed out, however, that some people accept responsibility — act responsibly — before a tragedy occurs.
“The most fitting response to Lac-Mégantic actually happened two weeks ago” in Fairfield, Maine, he wrote, when protesters blockaded a train “carrying the same fracked oil from the same oilfields of North Dakota, to the same refinery in New Brunswick.”
That train was on the southern- and central-Maine tracks operated by Pan Am Railways. (See sidebar, “The First Fearless Summer Skirmish.”)
The protesters’ message “was about ending our reliance on oil, not soon but now,” Lukacs continued. “For those who never knew the victims of Lac-Mégantic, there could be no better way to honor them.”
The Fairfield protesters were also protesting what they said were unsafe rail conditions for such dangerous cargo. They suffered a fate typical of prophets: they were (voluntarily) arrested.
Beginning my drive back to Maine through the forested hills, I listened to a local talk show in which businessmen described how important the railroad was to the Lac-Mégantic region’s economy. They wanted it reopened as soon as possible. It seemed to me very uncertain that the mayoress would get to see the tracks re-routed.
One reason humans have trouble accounting for human error is because they are not very good at resisting economic power.