Quebec’s provincial police have completed their investigation of last summer’s deadly train accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, involving a Maine-based railroad and have turned over their report to prosecutors, a spokesman told the Portland Press Herald on Monday.
Details of the investigation’s findings were not released, though a Canadian news outlet, citing an unnamed police source, reported that criminal negligence charges are expected to be filed against Ed Burkhardt, CEO of Rail World Inc., the company that owned and managed the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, and the conductor of the oil-laden train that derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic last July, killing 47 people.
A police spokesman Monday would not confirm the Canadian news outlet’s report.
“The only thing I can tell you is we’ve completed the investigation and have sent the inquiry report to the director of criminal and penal prosecutions,” said Claude Denis, a spokesman for the Quebec police. He directed all further questions to the prosecutor’s office.
Jean Pascal Boucher, a spokesman for the Quebec prosecutor’s office, confirmed Monday that the investigation report had been received and the prosecutor’s office was in the process of evaluating it.
He said the office has not decided yet whether to file charges against anyone.
“There is at this point no final decision,” Boucher said.
He couldn’t say when a decision could be expected.
On July 6, an MM&A train pulling dozens of oil-laden tank cars and with faulty brakes rolled driverless down a slight incline into Lac-Megantic while the train conductor was on a sleep break. The tank cars began to derail in the downtown area, spilling an estimated 1.5 million gallons of crude oil and causing an explosion that destroyed 40 buildings. A month later, MM&A filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The unnamed police source cited by Quebec-based news outlet QMI Agency said the train’s conductor, Tom Harding, was at fault because he knew some of the individual cars’ brakes were malfunctioning and should have realized that a small fire which broke out on the train earlier that evening would have further affected the brakes’ functionality.
Burkhardt, an Illinois resident, has been criticized for instituting a policy at MM&A of operating trains with a one-man crew. The presence of a second conductor could have prevented the train accident, critics of the policy have argued.
WRONGFUL DEATH SUITS MOVED
In related news, a federal judge Friday ordered that 19 wrongful death lawsuits filed in the wake of the Lac-Megantic train disaster be moved from Illinois to Maine, where MM&A’s bankruptcy proceedings are under way.
In her decision, U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen agreed with the trustee for the bankrupt MM&A that the wrongful death cases are related to the bankruptcy case and therefore should be handled in the same district.
After the accident, the families of 19 of those killed filed wrongful death lawsuits in Illinois against several defendants, including Rail World Inc.; Western Petroleum Corp., the company that owned the crude oil being transported; and CIT Group Inc., the manufacturer of the tank cars that ruptured upon derailment. The cases were allowed to be filed in Illinois because several of the companies, including Rail World, have their headquarters there. Daniel Cohn, the lawyer representing the victims’ families, previously said the cases were filed in Illinois because that state imposes no cap on damage awards in wrongful death cases, while there’s a $500,000 cap in Maine.
Attempts to reach Cohn for comment Monday were unsuccessful.
â€˜A CRITICAL STEP’
Robert Keach, the government-appointed trustee overseeing MM&A during its bankruptcy proceedings, last September filed a motion asking that the wrongful death cases be transferred to U.S. District Court in the District of Maine because they are related to the ongoing bankruptcy case. Under bankruptcy law, the district court in which a bankruptcy is taking place has the ability to transfer all related cases under its jurisdiction.
“We obviously agree with the court’s decision to transfer the cases, which … was clearly supported by the law and the facts in this case,” Keach wrote in an email Monday. “This is a critical step in centralizing the cases in the cross-border insolvency process, as Congress intended, and a critical step in achieving a prompt and fair cross-border settlement process for the benefit of all of the victims of the Lac-Megantic tragedy.”
According to the court order, Keach estimates that creditors have made as much as $40 million in secured claims against the railroad, and that the environmental cleanup in Lac-Megantic will cost between $200 million and $500 million.
The bankruptcy court on Jan. 23 approved the sale of MM&A’s assets to an affiliate of New York-based Fortress Investment Group for nearly $14.3 million.
Whit Richardson can be contacted at 791-6463 or: