Lac-Megantic investigation: Police visit MM&A Railway office

Provincial police conducted an operation Thursday at an office belonging to the railway involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster — the latest legal headache for the U.S. companies connected to the deadly crash.

Police were at the office of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway in Farnham, a town between Montreal and Lac-Megantic. Farnham is also the home of Tom Harding, the engineer of the runaway train that smashed into Lac-Megantic on July 6, killing an estimated 47 people.

Police wouldn’t disclose whether they were searching the MMA office or questioning someone, but they described Thursday’s event as natural, given the ongoing criminal investigation into the tragedy.

Company chairman Ed Burkhardt was questioned for hours by provincial police during his visit to Lac-Megantic after the tragedy.

“There’s an operation — which is normal, given the investigation,” said police spokeswoman Aurelie Guindon.

“I can’t confirm what the nature of that intervention is… But yes, we can’t deny that something’s going on — because there’s a patrol car in the parking lot.”

An official with MMA said Thursday she was aware of the police operation at its Farnham office, but she did not offer any further details. Sara Osborne said company president Robert Grindrod was not immediately available to comment.

Meanwhile, an executive with Burkhardt’s Illinois-based Rail World Inc., MMA’s major stockholder, said she was only made aware of the police activity in Farnham after receiving a call from the media.

“That was the first I had heard of it,” said Cathy Aldana, who added that Burkhardt was not immediately available to respond to questions.

“I’m just trying to reach out to our people to find out if they… know about it, or the circumstances.”

The companies have been under the spotlight ever since MMA rail tankers carrying crude oil smashed into the heart of Lac-Megantic, triggering a series of explosions and engulfing the area in fire.

The crash wiped out dozens of buildings in the downtown core, while millions of litres of oil leaked into the soil and nearby water bodies.

A number of lawsuits have been launched in the case, in addition to separate investigations being conducted by police and transportation-safety officials.

Lac-Megantic’s mayor announced earlier this week she had sent a lawyer’s letter to MMA, demanding that it immediately reimburse the town $4 million for environmental cleanup costs.

Colette Roy-Laroche alleges the community had to pick up the tab for MMA because it failed to pay companies it had hired to mop up crude oil that spilled from the damaged tankers.

Roy-Laroche’s office has said the company was given until noon Thursday to respond to the letter.

Shortly after the deadline passed, Aldana said she was unsure whether MMA had answered the letter.

And this might only be the start of the companies’ legal problems.

On Monday, a wrongful-death lawsuit was filed in an Illinois court against Rail World, MMA, Burkhardt and several U.S. petroleum companies linked to the disaster. The Illinois lawyer, who filed the court documents on behalf of the family of a Lac-Megantic man killed by the derailment, said he expects to present many more similar suits that could seek millions in damages from the defendants.

“I have not seen someone come here to serve the lawsuit on us yet,” said Aldana, who added she had only heard about it after being questioned by media.

Companies connected to the derailment may also face another legal challenge after a motion was presented last week in a Quebec court seeking permission to file a class-action lawsuit over the crash.

The disaster has already prompted some changes to federal safety guidelines for railways.

Meanwhile, the parish priest in Lac-Megantic is preparing for an upcoming memorial ceremony, which he believes will give the community its first opportunity to pause and grieve together.

Ste-Agnes Church will hold a Roman Catholic mass and memorial service Saturday to remember the victims of the derailment.

“I don’t think there are any words that can make sense of such an event, one of so much suffering,” Father Steve Lemay, who will deliver the homily, told a news conference Thursday.

“On the other hand, I have seen since the first moments of the disaster, of the tragedy, the power of love present in the mutual aid, in the brotherhood, in the welcoming, the listening, the sharing. And these expressions show me that death can do nothing against love.”

The service will be presided over by Luc Cyr, the archbishop of Sherbrooke.

Organizers of the service have reserved 700 places in the 1,000-seat church for loved ones of the derailment victims. Remaining pew spots in the church have been set aside for locals, volunteers and dignitaries.

Two big-screen TVs will be set up outside the church and will broadcast the ceremony live.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage is expected to be among those at the service.