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Emergency service crews at work in the blast and fire zone of Lac-Megantic. Photo: Surete du Quebec
Emergency service crews at work in the blast and fire zone of Lac-Megantic. Photo: Surete du Quebec

Railway Exec speaks about Lac-Megantic disaster

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The chairman of the American railway at the center of the deadly disaster in Quebec is speaking out about his company's struggles.

The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway faces a barrage of investigations and lawsuits, following the explosion last month that authorities say left 47 people dead. One of the railroad's industrial trains rolled free, derailed and exploded in the heart of Lac-Megantic.

Ed Burkhardt, who lives in Chicago, is the chairman of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic. He spoke in-depth with Brian Mann last week. Burkhardt spoke first about the fact that his company has so far failed to pay for expensive clean-up effort in the village.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Ed Burkhart: The issue is between us and our insurance company about when they are prepared to start to disperse funds for this effort. And they have agreed that they are liable for it, but there is some technical legal reasons that are holding them up on making disbursements. The mayor has been advised what the issues are and the fact that we are seeking to resolve that matter with the insurance company.

Brian Mann: I mean obviously the people there want to be made whole. You’re feeling as that you’ll need to wait to make any payments until the insurance company comes forward?

EB: Well, yes. There’s around—I’ve heard various figures—but around $4 million of contractor costs there right now for clean-up operations. We’re unable to fund that out of our own cash. So we’re waiting for the insurance company to come forward and start writing checks.

BPM: There is this report that one of your regional offices there in Quebec was raided—or various terms have been used for what happened there. Do you have any understanding about what Quebec Provincial Police were doing in your facilities?

EB: Well, not directly. We’ve been cooperating with the Quebec Provincial Police and the rail safety authorities, Transport Canada, and the TSB, and other governmental bodies that have been involved.  And we’ve furnished them any information that they’ve asked for. And they did come to our Quebec headquarters at Farnham yesterday with a search warrant and have searched the building and so on. I’m not quite sure what that’s all about.

BPM: Let me ask you this, and this is, I’m sure, a very painful time and a very difficult time for your company. There have been civil suits filed; there’s obviously this huge expense of the cleanup that’s coming there in Lac-Megantic. Do you feel that your company has the financial wherewithal to weather this storm and to go forward?

EB: Well that’s very much under consideration right now. I can’t answer your question directly because there’s a lot of factors and a lot of estimating to be done here. We’re trying to pull all of this together to consider the question that you asked.

BPM: What do you see as sort of the immediate next steps for your company? I mean, right now, is it just a case of going through the legal steps with the courts and with the insurance, or are you doing other specific steps to decide those questions?

EB: The company would like to get the cash flowing under our insurance policy and continue to address the cleanup following the derailment, the environmental issues, and then to start addressing claims made by local residents, businesses, and so on. This is a catastrophic event for the community and for us. And I’m just completely, very emotional on this subject myself. And so we want to take care of our responsibilities there. We also would like to get the rail line rebuilt through town so that we can restore operation and continue to serve our customers. And as a rail carrier we are important to local industries, including one major customer right there, Lac-Megantic, which happens to be the largest employer in town. And they are suffering with lack of rail service.

BPM: As head of this company, do you know at this point—feel like you know—how this train did manage to get loose and roll free that night? From your staff, from your personnel, do you have a sense that you know what happened here?

EB: We have bits and pieces of information, to answer the question that you just asked. We don’t have the full picture. And we’ve had great difficulty getting onto the derailment site, which we were able to access only last week. So we haven’t been able to interview everybody that we would like to discuss, that may have some knowledge of what went on here. So we don’t have a complete investigation, whereas the authorities, I believe, have all of the information that they need to make the complete investigation. So we’re going to basically wait to see what they have to say and when they say it.

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