Lac-Mégantic families welcome charges against MM&A Railway workers
3 former employees of now-defunct MM&A Railway to face 47 charges of criminal negligence
The families of many of the people killed in the Lac-Mégantic, Que., train derailment are welcoming criminal charges filed against three former employees of the now-defunct railway company at the centre of the disaster.
The charges come about 10 months after a train carrying crude oil from North Dakota rolled downhill unmanned and derailed in the centre of the town of Lac-Mégantic in eastern Quebec.
The ensuing explosions levelled the centre of town and left 47 people dead.
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The Crown announced late Monday that the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway (MM&A) and three of its former employees — Jean Demaitre (manager of train operations), Richard Labrie (railway traffic controller) and engineer Tom Harding — would each face 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death, one count for each person who died.
They are charged with the following:
"Between July 4, 2013, and July 6, 2013, in Farnham, district of Bedford, in Nantes and in Lac-Mégantic, district of Mégantic and elsewhere in Quebec did, by criminal negligence, cause the death of [victim's name] either by omission or by the actions taken during the supervision, exploitation, operation or securisation of the crude oil train number 2 (train block oil L), committing thereby the indictable offence provided by section 220b) of the Criminal Code."
Peter Flowers, a lawyer representing 41 families and residents in a civil suit against MM&A Railway, says the charges are a sign of progress.
"It's clearly a positive step in the right direction, but there needs to be additional things done," he said.
Flowers says his clients hope to see more industry-wide changes, including to the way tanker cars are made and how volatile substances are transported across Canada.
Flowers says the past 10 months have been "horrible" for many of the families.
"It's complete, total, utter devastation, and that's one of the reasons why we have to make certain, both through the criminal system and the civil system, this never ever happens again in Canada, or frankly anywhere in the world."
Arraignment Tuesday afternoon
The three former employees were arraigned at the Lac-Mégantic courthouse Tuesday afternoon.
They were then freed on a number of conditions.
Criminal negligence causing death carries a maximum life sentence.
A message left at the offices of MM&A was not immediately returned.
The assets of the railway company were sold to an American firm, Florida Great Lakes Partners, in January, after the MM&A filed for bankruptcy protection.
Looking for a 'scapegoat'
Accused Tom Harding is a member of the United Steelworkers Union, and the leadership there is outraged at his arrest.
Guy Farrell, assistant to the union's director, said Harding is being held responsible for a much larger issue.
"We feel as though they’re looking for a scapegoat, and they found Tom Harding," Farrell said.
Farrell said the problem goes much higher than a few MM&A employees.
He accused the federal government of slacking on rail safety rules, and said the MM&A Railway should shoulder more of the blame.
Harding's arrest uses 'unnecessary' show of force
Thomas Walsh, Harding's lawyer, said the charges come as no surprise.
But he says he was taken aback by how the arrest was carried out.
Walsh said he has written the Crown several times to let them know that if Harding is charged, he would be willing to show up at court voluntarily.
They came in like gangbusters.- Thomas Walsh, lawyer for Tom Harding
Instead, Walsh said, police "decided to make a monumental show of the thing."
"Basically Mr. Harding was at home in the backyard, working on his boat with his son and a friend ... when the SWAT squad showed up, heavily armed ... and told everybody to get down on the ground and there was sirens wailing all over the place.
"They came in like gangbusters ... all dressed in camouflage outfits, faces hidden and their guns drawn," Walsh said.
"They made a huge show of the thing and which I consider to be totally unnecessary.
"He said the fact they would opt to use that kind of force "goes beyond weird."
Walsh said his client has been in limbo for the past 10 months, waiting to see what will happen. He said the arrest at least removed some of that suspense.
Harding is expected to plead not guilty.
No comment from Burkhardt
The railway chairman who became the target of local anger in Lac-Mégantic is declining to discuss criminal charges filed against his company and three of its employees.
Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway boss Ed Burkhardt told The Canadian Press in an email he "will have no comment on these events."
Several locals who watched police march the accused into a Lac-Mégantic courtroom said MM&A executives, like Burkhardt, should instead be the ones facing justice.
With files from The Canadian Press