Time to lift the curtain at Lac-Mégantic

Politicians are touring the disaster site. Now it’s time to let media show the world what happened, writes Paul Wells.

Ryan Remiorz/CP

It was when I saw that  Justin Trudeau had toured the Lac-Mégantic disaster site that I started to think something is seriously screwy about this whole situation.

I take seriously the sincerity of every politician arriving at Lac-Mégantic to tour the site of Saturday’s early-morning train derailment, and I note that it is starting to be a long list. I stand to be corrected on this chronology, but in very rough order it has included Premier Pauline Marois, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, several members of Marois’s cabinet, two members of Harper’s, and Trudeau. On Tuesday Olivia Chow and another NDP MP will add their names to the list of MPs, MNAs and other dignitaries who have walked through the zone where the devastation occurred and the lives were lost. I assume it has been a harrowing experience for all of them.

But to some extent I can only assume, because no journalist has been allowed to take the same walk the politicians have taken. I did a radio interview today, and the reporter said, “The Prime Minister said it’s like a war zone. What have you seen?” And I said, more or less, I’ve seen some Sûreté du Québec scrums, and the haunted eyes of a few lucky survivors. 

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Now. There are reasons reporters wouldn’t be allowed to see the accident zone, and reasons why politicians would. But the parade of the latter is starting to make the curtain drawn in front of the former seem faintly ridiculous. The accident zone was hot for days, although apparently not so hot that a succession of politicians couldn’t get close. There are other security concerns, though apparently not insurmountable (see: succession of politicians). And political figures are responsible for authorizing relief efforts. But that’s less true for opposition politicians, and a whole lot less so again when it comes to leaders of third parties.

What do journalists bring to such an area besides morbid curiosity? Well, they bring cameras, so you can see what happened. Experienced eyes and some ability to describe a scene. For much of my career, that was considered enough for authorities to permit access to at least a few reporters to the scene of a disaster.

Note that I do mean “a few.” It’s routine in such instances to organize a pool, which would share its video and writing with colleagues. When I was a very young reporter covering the Oka standoff outside Montreal, there were few places soldiers could go that a small press pool, consisting of, say, a cameraman and a wire-service reporter, couldn’t go.

Why hasn’t that happened at Lac-Mégantic? Again, it can’t be safety because that hasn’t stopped a dozen politicians from traipsing in. My best guess is that it’s because there is a lake of spilled oil on that site, and no politician, federal or provincial, wants anyone seeing that on the TV news.

But we’ll be debating what happened in that town for a decade. A precondition of that debate is that reporters should be permitted to see and record what happened.

 




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Time to lift the curtain at Lac-Mégantic

  1. It’s obvious that tragedies of this magnitude become photo-ops for politicians (Calgary and Harper’s air force insignia come to mind). Photo-ops are controlled and staged by the politicians handlers and therefore exclude journalists (unless personally invited and no questions please) and the public. As you said, pools of oil are not something the powers that be want the public to see, only their concerned and thoughtful poses will do. Heartless.

    • Well as a Calgarian, I have to say I was happy to see the people holding the “purse-strings” show up. That would be the Premier and the PM. I was evacuated out of my home and frankly I didn’t care how they were dressed. They could have been naked for all I noticed. I did appreciate Mr. Mulclair and Mr. Trudeau coming as well. I also appreciated the press being there to keep us up-to-date on what was happening because we were stuck in houses and they wanted people off the streets. It also kept our families and friends up to date. I do think though that in this case, they might do as Paul says and send in a few members of the press because the press like to interview citizens and if there are a bunch of press it can become intrusive for people who are likely experiencing symptoms of PTSD.

  2. Elizabeth May’s riding is about as far as you can get from the train incident, but if an oil spill’s the reason and we reduce everything to crass political opportunism, shouldn’t the Green Party be especially interested in this?

    • No! The chickens have come home to roost with this disaster for the anti-pipeline crowd! Great to hear it was NOT Alberta crude!

      • You seriously need to think whether there was anything “great” about this, kiddo.

      • Alberta’s had an average of two crude oil spills a day, every day for the past 37 years.

        People don’t like oil transported by either pipeline or train, Joe. Crude or not, and at the moment we have no idea what it is.

      • Oh yeah. Don’t want tankers coating your coast in crude?
        Don’t blame us when we incinerate your town.

  3. Who’s responsible for deciding if/when/where/how journalists can get access to the site?

    • Paul Wells should be, obviously. He would also like to plan the next JTF2 raid in Afghanistan. A precondition.

      • It’s funny you should mention Afghanistan, anonymous commenter. I was there three times, and I can flat guarantee you that if the Canadian Forces had control of the Lac-Mégantic perimeter, reporters would have been escorted into the disaster area by now.

        You can go back to missing the point now.

        • Really! You were there three times! Was that back when you were a cub reporter for the National Post? The glory days? Tell us another story about your career! In fact, why don’t you make yourself the story? I love reading about you and your reactions to yourself, ultra-non-anonymous Paul Wells.

          The point being that no reporters were allowed into the middle of pitched battles. You were taken on tours. You will be allowed to tour Lac Megantic when its battle is over too. When it’s time for the little people to step in. Namely you.

          • Unlike politicians, who were taken “into the middle of pitched battles,” right?

          • Who the hell cares? Harper et al. want their photo op, Wells et all. want theirs. It’s not going to bring the dead back to life. This is just disaster porn all ’round.

          • Where arguments fail, “who the hell cares?” always comes through.
            Who does care. What does a free press have to do with a free and democratic society, anyway?

          • Sorry, I meant, Who the hell cares about Wells’ snitfits and prurient diaster porn afficianadoes?

            So your argument is that Wells and co. should be allowed to go into a disaster zone full of unexploded bombs and charred human remains and “report”? And that’s a “free press”? Give me a break, that’s like saying that a free press should allow the phone hacking of murder victims like in the UK. Wells & co. are from a media culture that created and applauded Mike Duffy for a decade; give Wells 150 extra pounds and an expense account and presto! instant Duffy.

          • When “who the hell cares” fails, ignoring what’s written and writing “so your argument is…” followed by some stream-of-conscious musings sometimes works.

          • “Stream of consciousness” being code for “things lenny can’t quite follow.” The stream is vast.

          • And here you are, wallowing in it.

          • I feed the trolls like foie gras geese.

          • Why do you read the news if you have no interest, in you know, the news?

            Good look peering through the filter felcher.

          • I have interest in the news, the issues, and the debate. I have no interest in gossip about blackened corpses. See the difference?

          • Your reply consists entirely of a red herring. It’s you that talks of blackened bodies, journalists are interested in what happened, to who and why.

          • LOL. Journalists are interested in the frisson of tear-stained resilience, sold by the gram. What happened, to who[m], and why are questions that do not require tours of the site which — silver herring alert — is what this pathetic post of Wells’ is about.

          • Of course it requires tours of the site! The whole story is about what happened at the site, what happened to the site, what happened to anyone and anything at the site!

          • What an obedient little twit you are. Got a job shining Harper’s non-combat shoes yet?

        • u know too much sir

  4. 100,000 litres (26,385 gallons) of oil spilled into the Chaudiere River and 50 or so people were vapourized.

    Of course govt people are going to check it out

    • 100,000 litres = 629 barrels or about one tanker car.

      I saw a report that the oil was in the river and about 100 km downstream by yesterday. So, if reporters wanted to see the effects in the water, there should be no problem getting access to that portion.

      Nathan VanderKlippe of the G&M did some reporting of this nature (effects on downstream river) due to a couple of pipeline breaks – he just jumped in his car, grabbed a map, and toured the area almost immediately.

      • Yeah, a thin film apparently but there are 10 communities downstream worried about it.

        If the media waits to politely ask for access they’ll get nowhere.

        • EXCELLENT point. It’s time the media just shoves their way in, or finds some way to cover this whether Harper likes it or not. They’re a timid bunch, with the exception of Terry Milewski, but he can’t do much by himself.

          • Canadian deference to authority run amuck. They’ve let the most amazing things go by….

  5. Translation: Wells is bored of sitting at the kids’ table, wants to bring the snark to HELP.

    • Whatever he wants to bring is fine. Free the press! It’s an experiment that must be tried in Canada.

      • Along with life tenure for journalists, that’ll really increase efficiency. Oh, wait, we already have that. Maybe if the life-tenure journalists would just bleat louder! That’ll work!

        • Life tenure is a great idea. Possibly the only one you have ever had.

          What do you have against journos? What’s your issue, your problem?

  6. Jesus, get a drone with a camera, fly it over. Duh.

    • This is actually a really good idea. The only concern would be if the drone crashes and restarts a fire or something. You’d want to make sure there was no chance of that.

      • Thanks. I think that the danger of that happening is nil, crude has a very high ignition point. You can, for instance, throw a lighted cigarette into a pool of gasoline and it will NOT ignite.

        • Someone said that it’s Bakken (from N.Dakota) light crude, explodes easily.

          • More easily than heavy crude for sure. To burn oil spills on the ocean for instance gasoline is added. Much depends on ambient temperature, the relative levels of lighter hydrocarbons, etc, which can produce EASILY ignitable vapours. My research on this indicates that the relative ignitability of various hydrocarbons is quite surprisingly complicated.

            Please note that “flash point” and “ignition point” are quite different things.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_point

  7. The ONLY reason journalist’s should be denied access is for reasons of safety, and even then, not the safety of the journo, but others (in the unlikely event that is true). Even if it is not “safe” (whatever that means), it should be up to the journo, not the “authorities”. If pasty, chubby, Harper can manage, then I should think anyone could.

  8. Canada is where news comes to die, Wells. For some reason, msm allows The State enormous amounts of privacy and nothing much gets reported on. People on twitter, and other, chiding you for this article are ignorant – America has a news culture where everything gets reported and authorities do just fine with scrutiny. Msm should absolutely be allowed to report much more than they already are, it is ridiculous how controlling authorities are.

    You are spot on, Wells. If dilettante Trudeau can safely tour the disaster area, a few msm types can handle it as well. Canadian authorities hate scrutiny is what the problem is.

    • It was pointed out that the photo was taken some distance from the actual site. Nobody has suggested that Trudeau is a “dilettante” (favourite word of the non-thinkers), and he is doing what he should do, he and his wife are both from Quebec, he is a political leader and a compassionate person. Anyone with half a brain has figured out by now that he’s far from being a “dilettante”.

  9. no journalist has been allowed to take the same walk the politicians have taken

    Just to clarify, are journalists actually being prevented from walking around the disaster area or are they simply not being invited to accompany politicians?

    • The former. I don’t believe many reporters would choose to accompany politicians if they could walk around without politicians, but in any case both options are foreclosed.

  10. Say, here’s a question someone out there would know the answer to.

    If this tanker train originated in North Dakota, on its way to Irving refinery in N.B. (source and destination doesn’t really matter to my q) – who employs the train engineer? The owner of the tracks (it would have crisscrossed and hopscotched a number of different lines, say CN or CP in addition to the short line where the tragedy occurred), or the owner of the locomotive/tanker cars?

    I would think the latter. I thought I read somewhere that the train engineer was on this load for three days prior. So, why would the track owner, the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, be responsible for responding to queries about how that specific train was operated? Shouldn’t it be the train owner? Or are they the same here?

    And for argument’s sake, suppose the total trip would have taken 5 days (15 man days @ 8 hr shifts), 73 cars @500 barrels = 37,000 barrels. Say an engineer makes $100 k. So $2,000/week or $400/d. Extra cost for second engineer = $400 * 15 man days= $6,000.

    $6,000/37,000 barrels = 16 cents per barrel. That seems cheap.

    • You’ve made too many suppositions to make for an easy answer. It all depends on how you define “train” (And the Press is making an absolute mess of this, e.g: “Train inspected July 6″…that could mean the cars, not the locos, or vice-versa) and further complicated by “overhead rights”, “trackage rights” etc. Press further complicates the issue by stating (and this gets closer to your query) “Cdn engineers not allowed in US and Americans not allowed in Canada”. False! They may be observers (Customs pre-cleared) until the unit re-enters their jurisdiction.

      Bear in mind that this “train”…I’ll call it a “trainload” originated in North Dakota, so when the type of car is mentioned, it had been allowed in two nations’ jurisdictions.

      The major underlying problem in this case is the lack of denying access to a runaway by the use of chocks or a derailer to isolate the train, and prevent a runaway from going any more than a few car lengths before derailing:

      [

      A derail or derailer is a device used to prevent fouling of a rail track by unauthorized movements of trains or unattended rolling stock. It works (as the name suggests) by derailing the equipment as it rolls over or through the derail.

      Although accidental derailment is damaging to equipment and track,
      and requires considerable time and expense to remedy, derails are used
      in situations where there is a risk of greater damage to equipment,
      injury or death if equipment is allowed to proceed past the derail
      point.

      Derails may be applied:

      where sidings meet main lines or other through tracks

      at junctions or other crossings to protect the interlocking against unauthorized movement

      temporarily at an area where crews are working on a rail line[1]

      approaching a drawbridge, dead end, or similar hazard.][...]

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derail_%28railroad%29

  11. They are reporting in a Portland newspaper that investigators are looking into the possibility that the runaway train hit four train cars full of liquid propane that were parked on a side track in the town. A resident of the town witnessed flames around a train car full of propane and she and her husband took off for the mall 1 mile away. Shortly after, they heard the enormous explosion.

    • Portland, Maine, or Portland,Oregon?

      Could make a difference as the speculation could be from merely hundreds of miles away, as opposed to thousands.

      • Portland Herald Press in Maine. The story was updated at 1253 h today so 1253 am.

    • Do you have any links to this article? It seems fishy. Who owns the second propane-filled rail cars? Is it also the Montreal-Maine-Atlantic railway? If not, why aren’t we hearing from this other rail company? Isn’t it odd that this witness was heading to the mall shortly before/around midnight? Unless the fire happened 8 hours prior (assuming closing time of 5pm for the mall), in which case the fire department would have presumably gotten the propane fire under control well before the time of the explosion?

      • Portland Herald Press in Maine. Story updated at 12:53 am today. Sorry, I am not good with the links.
        The witness (whose name is reported in the paper) lived by the tracks and was home and NOT going to the mall. She heard a big rumble and looked out her window, etc. She yelled to her husband, they took off for the mall…..look up the article.

    • That reference to “propane cars” has been circulating for two days. I’ve yet to see verification of it, and the reference has disappeared in most recent stories.

      Bear in mind this was Bakken Light, more than willing to explode on its own volition in a case like this. Don’t let Oilpologists tell you otherwise:

      http://www.cenovus.com/contractor/docs/CenovusMSDS_BakkenOil.pdf

      • Portland Herald Press in Maine…story updated at 12:53 am today.

  12. Well what I see is that the politicians seem to have co opted police to keep the press out from reporting news that may damage their reputation or their political interest. But I think the sad fact is that the press has to some point allowed this to happen. The press has become more opinionated in their reporting. It would probably be worst if the PM was allowed to respond to questions in the same manner as the U.S. President. Keep the scrums.

  13. The irony of the photo below the headline is that it gives the impression that cameramen followed Trudeau around during his visit.

    How restricted is access to reporters versus journalists? When I visit the CBC Montreal website, they brag about how one journalist is reporting live at the “centre of the disaster scene” while others are interviewing survivors, reporting on relief efforts, discussing railway safety, etc. It doesn’t sound like their access is restricted.
    Another thought: Could it be a question of respect for those who have died? I’ve seen disgraceful pictures of journalists and photographers trying to get the best close-up shot of a dying boy in the middle east, giving the sense that none of them are really interested in helping but just trying to get the best “scoop.” I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the trade, or to demean journalists in general (there are some bad apples in every profession), but there is certainly a fine line between reporting the news, and being respectful towards the victims. Perhaps not all journalists are capable of walking that line, and access has been restricted to ensure no tasteless reporting?

    • “The irony of the photo is that it gives the impression….”
      Why do you think the photo was chosen to accompany Mr. Well’s editorial? It certainly does give the “politician photo-op” impression and perhaps it is accurate. However, what you don’t seem understand is that it doesn’t really matter. Whatever keeps this story in the news is a good thing for the people of this community. If their story is in the news, there will be continued pressure applied for answers and there will be more help arriving in the way of donations of everything that is needed including money. As Mr. Mulclair said in Calgary, “this is NOT the time for partisan politics”.

    • That photo was taken on Laval St., a half block north of the roadblock that marks the limit of press access. The tent-like structures behind Trudeau are the networks’ camera stations. The train itself is two blocks further south.

    • It’s not a “scoop”, it’s showing people what is going on. People in the Middle East actually want the rest of the world to see their suffering.

      What happened in the Sandy Hook shooting (for example) was deplorable, but that’s the US, and that has set up everyone’s attitudes towards disasters and the press.

  14. I think one thing that leads to this situation is that reporters are nosy by nature. Its their job, if they weren’t nosy, they would not be good reporters, but it can be annoying and create animosity among people and distract important people for their key work in this emergency. I see it in the scrums with the police and the like there the reporters come across as carping and aggressive.

    • A good question would be – who is preventing the journalists from entering? Is it the Mayor, or the PQ, or Harper?

      This is more like Harper’s secrecy and damage control than any annoyance. As Wells said, journalist go into real war zones (as if Harper’s ever seen one). The railway has apparently taken responsibility for the tragedy, but I wonder how much talking it cost Harper to get them to do that? Right now anger is rightly directed at the government for their cutbacks to safety, and the CPC have responded by having their pit bulls like Ezra Levant start accusing “eco terrorists”. That’s been disproven by the police, it’s nothing to do with environmentalists – and now it’s down to criminal negligence.

      Harper’s obsession with moving oil around (although this oil was from North Dakota), pleasing his buddies in the oil business, and his obsession with getting a pipeline and pipelines in across the country – ya really gotta wonder. Reporters aren’t allowed in because they’re too smart.

      • Since Obama’s climate speech on June 25, it would appear the Keystone XL will not be approved any time soon (if at all). Disappointing for both the Federal and Alberta governments who have spent millions of the Cdn taxpayers money lobbying for this very important pipeline. With a new focus on the Irving Oil refinery in NB, the Alberta Premier committed (just the day before the Lac Megantic derailment) $5B to TCPL’s proposed Energy East pipeline.This pipeline will have the capacity to carry almost 4X more oil than rail tanker cars at 1/3 the rail cost however, the oil will be diluted with toxic solvents so when the line ruptures it will create a “colossal” disaster.

        http://business.financialpost.com/2013/07/04/alberta-commits-5-billion-to-transcanadas-proposed-energy-east-pipeline/?__lsa=817c-dd45

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