TORONTO (AP) — Three employees and the railway company involved in last summer's massive explosion of a runaway oil train that incinerated much of a small town in Quebec, killing 47 people, will face criminal negligence charges, provincial prosecutors announced late Monday.
The charges come about 10 months after more than 60 of the tankers carrying oil from North Dakota came loose in the middle of the night, sped downhill for nearly seven miles (11 kilometers) and derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic in eastern Quebec. At least five of the tankers exploded, leveling about 30 buildings, including a popular bar that was filled with revelers last July 6.
The Quebec provincial prosecutor's office said 47 counts of criminal negligence have been filed against engineer Thomas Harding, manager of train operations Jean Demaitre, and Richard Labrie, who was in charge of rail circulation, as well as the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd., the defunct railway at the heart of the disaster. The charges represent one count for each person killed. They are the first criminal charges brought. Criminal negligence that causes death can result in a jail sentence of up to life imprisonment in Canada.
Rene Verret, a spokesman for the prosecutor, said the three railway employees were arrested late Monday afternoon. They are scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday in Lac-Megantic. A message left at MM&A offices was not immediately returned.
Quebec's director of criminal and penal prosecutions had begun a review of the file in late March. Prosecutors said in a statement that they elected to file the charges after an analysis of the evidence gathered at the scene. The railroad blamed the engineer for failing to set enough brakes, allowing the train to begin rolling toward the lakeside town of 6,000.
Harding had left the train unattended overnight to sleep at a local inn shortly before it barreled into Lac-Megantic, devastating the downtown bar area and forcing a third of the town's residents to flee.
The arrests came just days before the closing of the sale of the bankrupt railroad.
The $15.85 million sale of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway is expected to close on Thursday in the U.S., but there could be a delay of a few days on a parallel proceeding in Canada. Most of the proceeds will be used to repay creditors.
Eventually, there will be a settlement fund to compensate victims and repay cleanup costs.
The total environmental cleanup alone could end up costing between $200 million and $500 million based on early estimates, and there's only $25 million in insurance payouts available for wrongful death, personal injury, property damage, fire suppression and environmental impact.
The railroad's buyer, a subsidiary of New York-based Fortress Investment Group, is changing the railroad's name to Central Maine and Quebec Railway. The company said it hopes to recapture lost business but has no plans to try to bring back oil shipments. .
Verret said prosecutors had hoped to announce the charges earlier, but said they had to find and arrest those charged as well as inform the families of the victims in Lac-Megantic.
A news conference is planned in Lac-Megantic on Tuesday regarding the rebuilding of the Musi-Cafe, the establishment in the heart of town where many people were incinerated. Lac-Megantic Mayor Colette Roy Laroche and Musi-Cafe owner Yannick Gagne are expected to attend.
The crash, the worst railway accident in Canada in nearly 150 years, prompted intense public pressure to make oil trains safer in the U.S. and Canada. Canada's transport minister said in April that the type of tankers that were involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster must be retired or retrofitted within three years because they are prone to rupturing. The oil industry has rapidly moved to using trains to transport oil in part because of oil booms in the Bakken region in North Dakota and in the oil sands in Alberta, and because of a lack of pipelines.
Canadian Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt issued a brief statement in which she thanked Quebec provincial police for their investigation.
"I understand that this is difficult for those affected by the tragic incident in Lac-Megantic," she said, adding there would be no further comment as the case is before the courts.
Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.