Skip to content

Pt. 2: DR.-ed strangelaws or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb-train

(For more than a year, ominous rumors had been privately circulating among high-level Western leaders that bureaucrats had been at work on what was darkly hinted to be the ultimate weapon for industry: ‘self-regulation’)


In Part 1, I highlighted some of the many safety and regulatory issue with Canada and the rail industry.  But, what is to be done?


On the one hand, we have a federal government that is refusing to take its responsibility seriously for rail safety (let alone climate change). From lack of data, to limp regulations and underfunding, our communities are left in a precarious situation.  Municipalities and first responders will continue to be unprepared for disaster, will not have real time data and there has been no real conversation ‘route planning’ that would direct trains carrying dangerous cargos around populated areas. Meaningful conversation becomes exceedingly difficult as the Harper government routinely buries, “regulatory changes within massive budget implementation bills, obscuring parliamentary and public scrutiny of specific regulatory changes.”

There is also a failure of the federal government to convene a full judicial inquiry into the cause of the Lac Mégantic disaster. For the railways, oil shippers and the federal government, such a proceeding would be very uncomfortable. As one reporter noted this would, “shed light on the string of circumstances that produced the disaster, and that might shed further light on criminal wrongdoing or liability.” Instead we see three scapegoats for a disaster that resulted from systematic deregulation and a lack of robust legislation to protect the public. As this excellent article points out, “Its senior executives, directors, and owners have escaped prosecution while the three employees face life behind bars….The producers who loaded their explosive Bakken oil onto unsafe tank cars face no charges. The shippers who wrongly classified it as low volatility when it was, in reality, a much higher volatility gasoline-like product, face no charges. Neither do the Canadian importers who were obligated to ensure that it was properly classified.” Nor will full prosecution occur for Transport Canada, or the many Ministers of Transportation, who were warmed about the danger of these tank cars 20 years ago and that they should not be used to transport hazardous goods. The USW Quebec Director Daniel Roy sums it, “Ex-MMA owner and president Ed Burkhardt was not placed in handcuffs. Nor were there charges against the Harper government that joined with corporations to deregulate the rail industry and allow single-worker train crews. Only the workers face criminal prosecution, a smokescreen to divert attention from the real culprits in this tragedy. It’s a criminal prosecution of front-line workers made scapegoats by a Conservative government that has abdicated its responsibilities.”

Just the other week -despite the fact that Canadians are on the hook for the estimated $1,000,000,000 clean up at  Lac Mégantic- the company that purchased the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic rail firm from bankruptcy announced it plans to resume shipments of non-hazardous goods within 10 days and shipments of crude oil by 2015. It wouldn’t be surprising if 2015 was a late estimate, and CBR moves earlier, with the way the Harper government lets lobbyists direct their approvals. As a Radio Canada investigation by Enquête highlighted, prior to the Lac Mégantic Disaster, “MMA applied to Transport Canada in 2009 for permission to operate with one-person crews… Officials at the Montreal office opposed this request because of the company’s history of safety violations and the potential danger to communities… A year later, a Transport Canada audit of MMA revealed major deficiencies in its performance and procedures, including with train inspections and brake tests. The Steelworkers union also strenuously opposed one-person crews… MMA returned with the same request in 2011, and again the Montreal office balked. MMA complained to the industry lobby, the Railway Association of Canada (RAC).  A senior RAC official promised to ‘make some calls.’” And voilà, the MMA wish was granted its wish in May 2012. Sadly, there is no ‘voilà’ moment for the people who were incinerated in Lac-Mégantic and their families who didn’t even have bodies to identify.

On the other hand, we have the myth of industry ‘self-regulation’, that corporations are ‘responsible citizens’, and there ‘lessons learned’ after a disaster. Rail companies that have gutted their own workforce are claiming changes to increase safety measures will create staffing shortages and scheduling problems; but at the same time want to continuing shipper more and more crude by rail.It is clear that the cavalier attitude and risk-taking practices by rail companies in Canada ultimately hurt communities for the benefit of shareholders.

These companies are aided and abetted by legions of lobbyists and allied think tanks chanting the  deregulation mantra. They have not only colluded with neo-liberal governments and convinced the financial analysts in the media that thorough regulations are unnecessary red tape that impedes self-regulating capitalism, but also many people believe that it is normal for industry costs and risks to be externalized onto the public. For example, “Whether through dumping products into the environment or through increasing safety risks, the cost is borne by reduced protection for the public. Regulations, properly designed and enforced, have the potential to force corporations to internalize these costs to some extent, and thereby reduce the risk of their causing harm to individuals, communities and the environment. To the extent that regulations add to costs, they will be resisted by corporations.”


When disaster does strike, we are continually fed the fallacy and narrative that there are ‘lessons learned’.  This presupposes – especially in the case of rail safety – that there was no way of knowing the risk prior to the incident.  Only a couple weeks ago, we heard the Minister of Transportation Lisa Raitt battering around phrases in response to a question about Lac-Mégantic that her, “her thoughts with the community, it is a tough time still, was a tragic incident for everyone, etc.”

This type of  revisionary history and narrative seeks to ensure that the rail industry can continue hiding critical safety information from the public and that the government is not responsible for regulatory oversight, as it was just a couple bad apples. After the disaster in Lac-Mégantic we saw the focus  changed in a macabre PR dance to manage the crisis of corporate and government legitimacy where these interests work together to, “meet some demands of justice, to shed light on some truths, and also to impose a false closure that limits public reflection on gross regulatory failures.”The central issue of government and corporate predation putting the interests of distant shareholders over the safety of communities is never discussed. What we get are photo-ops of sombre faced politicians walking around a ravaged environment who, “solemnly promise to learn from the event, assuring the stunned public that they will not let it happen again, that heads will roll if legal justice demands it,” and there is an impression left that, “there is a great deal of supervision and monitoring. It looks to all the world that it is not the lack of regulation by governments, but its excesses, that impoverish and endanger us. Thus it is that, when a Lac-Mégantic occurs, everyone is surprised that it could happen at all: surely something has gone wrong with the otherwise satisfactory operations of profit-seekers and/or the well-established government oversight over profit-making?”

Despite how cavalier, callous,  and arrogant the rail companies and government regulators were leading up to the Lac-Mégantic disaster (and continue to be after), this is nothing unique.  Our regulatory laws, incentives and standards are built on an ideology where risk taking behaviour is ‘competitive’, ‘an efficiency’, and deified as a ‘virtuous activity’. It is a crass social Darwinism that legitimates, “a certain amount of acceptable harm, a certain amount of bleeding and illness, a certain number of deaths, a certain amount of environmental despoliation. We are told that, in our desire for welfare, we must, and are assumed to be, willing to sacrifice bodies, lives and our ecology.”

This is the sinister ideological edifice that guides capitalism, a cost-benefit analysis which values profit over potential harm inflicted.  When we do see new safety standards and regulations, it is only when the harms suffered in the profit-maximizing race too the bottom become too politically embarrassing to play off with saccharine pledges that community safety is a priority. Yet, we are fed a vulgar empiricism where only experts and consultants in the field have a legitimate right to question, as community pain, suffering, and loss can not be quantified. While communities across Canada are asking for real time data on train movements, this information is withheld as only experts (with their perceived innocence) have the knowledge to make informed decisions about public safety and well being.  New safety measures and regulations are formed out of benign sounding working groups which operate behind closed doors. This framework for ‘regulatory bargaining’ innately privileges the rail industry over the public’s well-being (the fox now lives in the henhouse).  As is overtly apparent at this point, the rail industry (and its ideology of predatory capitalism) is driven only by profit maximization and their own corporate welfare; we have framework for working groups to come up with new regulations but, “what is wrong with the assumed framework is that it assumes capitalism away.” While it is counter intuitive to public safety, we have a bargaining framework where those exploiting our safety have the position set the regulatory limits on their exploitation. The standards for rail safety are increasingly untenable, and are bound to fail again.

In order to build the  agency to decarbonize the economy of tomorrow, we need coherently critique the framework which enables capitalism today.  This is a pathological framework that we know all to well ignores the very real human and ecological consequences of profit maximization and makes us slaves to economists explaining away capricious economic cycles.  Our relationship to regulations, and the neoliberal economic policies they serve, are far too often posed as simple juxtapositions and false dichotomies.  

First, there is the paradoxical framework that asks us to choose between expansion of pipelines or oil-by-rail; we loose out either way. We are told in this false dichotomy that dangerous oil-by-rail is increasing drastically only because environmentalists are blocking pipelines. As a recent report outlines, “the truth is that crude-by-rail has grown in spite of, not because of, pipeline permitting delays.  The industry is in fact simultaneously pushing both pipelines and increased crude-by-rail on the North American public.” Both transportation options are a part of the plan to get extreme energy to market at the risk of our communities and environment. For example, 70-80% of crude oil loaded onto trains in the U.S. and Canada is loaded in the North Dakota Bakken Feild.  Tar sands pipelines are designed to bring dilbit to feed refineries that are primarily focused on exporting diesel, gasoline and petcoke. Yet, while we see more and more pipeline proposals we are also seeing new transloading facilities being built for tar sands bitumen for trains. Interestingly, some of the major companies proposing pipelines are the ones building the transloading terminal facilities. Enbridge operated three transloading rail terminals for 300,000bpd. Kinder Morgan has 3 terminals and 3 more planned for 561,000 bpd. A typical unit train can move in the order of 100,000bpd and new loading/unloading facilities are designed to accommodate multiple unit train movements on a daily basis. Currently, if we estimated that if 1 million bpd is being loaded and unloaded daily, then 135 crude oil trains of atleast 100 cars each are moving through North America each day; this means that at any given time 9 million barrels of oil is moving on the rails.  The same study points out that if shipments were to reach the full capacity of all loading terminals currently operating and being constructed or planned, the number of trains carrying crude on an average day would quintuple to around 675  train at least 100 cars long.  They would be hauling over 45 million barrels of hazardous crude oil through thousands of North American communities. By the end of the year western Canada will have rail terminal capacity for over 1 million bpd. By 2016, it is estimated North American capacity will be over 5.1 million bpd. This is at the same time as proposed pipelines across western Canada would increase the current output by an additional 3 million bpd.   With either pipelines or rail there is major risks of spills and both are, “carrying a commodity that is destroying our climate… The fact is that the more industry drills, the more they spill… The choice we should be making is not between dangerous crude oil trains or dirty pipelines, but between a clean energy future and a safe climate on the one hand, or business as usual, a wrecked planet and blighted communities on the other.”

Faced with situations like pipeline vs oil-by-rail, there is a  tendency to slip into ‘climate fatalism’ or ‘technological salvation’ from climate change.  Withdrawing into the inevitability of our demise will not create a system change, nor will a faith in solar roads, open data mapping, or whatever new technologies the creative class  apostles are tweeting about.  While these are safe and comfortable positions, these discourses enforce the operation of capital. More than ever we see are political apparatus and legal regulations positioned to reinforce the circulation of predatory capital at the expense of society. A new veneer of eco-tech, neo-liberals on bikes, or small regulatory changes only serves to reinforce this process, and it is the process that needs changing not ‘things’ or ‘a couple bad apples’. The dogmatic principle that a high rate of return on capital must exceed the rate of growth of income leads us into an disastrous situation both environmentally and socially. It is the underlying conditions and the demands/contradictions of capital (reproduce, increase, expand) which pushes us towards climate destruction/exploitation. The commodities we ship like oil-by-rail have become commodities full of other meanings and obligations. These meanings and obligations normalize a system where increased profit is more valuable than ecological awareness, or our lives; anything can be demanded and sacrificed to meet this obligation. Looking at both the causes of the  Lac-Mégantic Disaster and the inimical response after, it is clear the underlying system, obligations, and conditions need to be demystified as they will only produce more disasters, extreme energy and climate change.

Lastly, there is the standard dualism that we need to defeat an issue like oil-by-rail  to save the planet. We don’t win by playing this game either. While arguing for better safety regulations for oil-by-rail may provide short term risk mitigation, it cannot be done at the expense of questioning the legitimacy of the regulatory system itself. The issues we face from oil-by-rail to deforestation to water pollution do not occur in a void, they are a part of the same system. At the same time environmentalism can not be compartmentalized or pushed to the fringes of politics. When the  issues are oversimplified or environmental justice is atomized, we miss the important opportunity to create a  coherent critique of capitalism’s ecological consequences and to do the work of theorizing alternatives. It is, “ridiculous that we still bracket climate change and water supplies as specifically ‘environmental’ issues: the questions at hand are ones of political economy and collective action.”

While the Lac-Mégantic Disaster and the precarious state our communities are currently in with ‘salted-bomb trains’ passing by daily has many people outraged, it needs to be informed and strategic outrage. It is a sad fact that currently it has become easier to imagine global climate destruction than is to imagine a change to our capitalism/regulations. More than ever there is a need to humanize our regulatory framework and protect our environment.  But, this can not be done without re-imaginging our economic and social systems. Our shared future holds a radical emancipatory possibility, one where human and environmental needs are respected and met. It is only by demanding the impossible  today that we can uncover the hidden potential of the future before it is too late.




More Information at:

Pt. 1: DR.-ed strangelaws or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb-train

It’s our right to know, Rail Safety Matters

Getting railroaded with DOT-111 Tanker Trains in Toronto

Oil-By-Rail exports to US up 900 Per Cent

Lisa Raitt and Stephen Harper Still Playing Dangerous Petro Politicking With Our Communities
DOT-111 Detecting Disaster Spotters Guide
Could Toronto be the next Lac-Magnetic disaster
Oil cars on fire after train collision in North Dakota
Moving oil by rail to expand despite public concerns
Harper told no regulatory approval needed for moving tar sands oil by rail