People look into the disaster site near the Megantic Sports Centre in downtown Lake Megantic - Date unknown Justin Tang.
5 August 2013
Railway Company to Stop Transporting Oil After Lake Megantic Disaster
Lake Megantic Quebec - Rail traffic may begin running through Lake Megantic again this week, but the Montreal Maine & Atlantic railway (MMA) has decided it will stop hauling oil after one of its trains derailed and exploded here last month.
"It's proven to be more trouble than it's worth, and I guess that's putting this mildly," company chairman Ed Burkhardt said on Monday, a month after a runaway MMA train exploded downtown, killing 47 people and levelling much of the town.
"We don't plan to continue with oil transportation. That traffic is going to go other ways, not over our lines," he said.
The train that derailed on 6 Jul 2013 was loaded with crude oil extracted from fields in North Dakota, and was bound for an Irving refinery in St. John, N.B.
Much of Lake Megantic remains closed as crews haul away debris and dig up oil-contaminated soil, but MMA plans to resume service soon, possibly this week, on the undamaged tracks on the east side of the blast site, Burkhardt said.
The area around the western end of the tracks, which form a Y-shaped junction around the crash site, was almost completely flattened during the explosion.
That section of track will take longer to reopen. "I can't hazard a guess on that," Burkhardt said.
"I do hope people will see some carloads of paper, wood pulp, logs, and automobiles and that kind of stuff go through Megantic, before too long. And I would hope that they wouldn't see that as some kind of threat to them," he said.
"If we can start to see an uptick in freight volume, we won't be laying anybody else off, and we actually might start to call people back to work," Burkhardt said.
The railway has laid off 24 employees in Quebec and 64 in Maine since the explosion.
"Well, there have been a bunch of layoffs, so they're not happy," Burkhardt said, when asked how the company's employees were doing.
The company has not ruled out declaring bankruptcy, he said.
"Those possibilities haven't gone away," Burkhardt said. "We haven't added up, yet, where we think we stand. But we do intend to keep operating and we believe we're bringing in enough cash to continue operating."
The company is still moving freight outside of Lake Megantic, but much less, he said.
Burkhardt confirmed media reports that the company had instructed engineers to drive slowly in several areas around Lake Megantic, but said that the tracks were still safe.
"It's a little like a highway. The highway may be good for, let's say, 60 miles an hour, but there are places on it where it's good for 30 and places where it's good for 25," Burkhardt said.
"Our track people inspect the tracks and they continually change what speed limit is okay, based on conditions," he said.
Cold weather means more speed restrictions are in place during the winter and spring, he said. The tracks should be in better condition by the fall, after summer maintenance.
Train engineers and railway workers who looked at photographs taken by The Gazette of the tracks leading into Lake Megantic told the newspaper that parts seemed decrepit and severely damaged, but agreed that this likely did not cause the crash.
But Burkhardt said Transport Canada agents inspected the tracks often.
"They're looking at it all the time. I don't know that they're on a regular schedule, but sometimes we see quite a bit of them, and then there will be a while when we don't, when they're off somewhere else," he said.
Burkhardt said the company rents a track inspection vehicle from Canadian Pacific once a year to take a closer look at its tracks.
About 30 percent of the company's annual budget is dedicated to track maintenance, Burkhardt said.
"Now, we wish that our finances would allow us to do more work than we do, but we have to pay our way. The money is not unlimited," he said.
MMA has not paid for any of the cleanup work, and last week, Lake Megantic had to cover the $7.8 million bill run up by contractors working on the site.
Work is now continuing, after the town and province guaranteed the contractors would be paid.
"That's been very helpful because that's kept them on the job, but that can't go on that way forever," Burkhardt said.
MMA's insurance company has agreed to pay for the work, but is withholding cheques due to a "technical reason," he said.
"I think they acknowledge they have to pay it out, but the form and the timing for which they make the payment is what's bothered them.
"I can't quite describe their problem, because it's their problem. But it becomes our problem then because they're not paying us. They're not paying anybody. We'd like them to pay these contractors," he added.
"I wish we had that resolved. But as of this moment we don't," he said.
Burkhardt said he still had not spoken with Lake Megantic's mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche.
"I had hoped the company would behave like a good corporate neighbour. That's the least one could hope for," Roy-Laroche said on 25 Jul 2013, after MMA missed the town's deadline to settle the cleanup bill.
Burkhardt's visit to the town a few days after the explosion ended shortly after police officers showed up at a press scrum to bring him in for questioning.
"What do you say in those circumstances, other than to say that this is awful? I wasn't the guy who pulled the switch on this, I didn't cause it, but being the chairman I guess I'm going to take all the criticism and the anger. So, okay, I'm a big boy, I can take that, and I did, but other than maybe some people felt better by yelling at me, it didn't really accomplish a whole lot," he said.
"I would hope that over a period of time that some of the sting would fade and people would be more objective and recognize that Ed Burkhardt isn't Jack the Ripper or somebody like that," he added.