BUSINESS

Lac-Megantic Explosion: MMA Offices Raided By Police

07/25/2013 11:30 EDT | Updated 09/24/2013 05:12 EDT
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Quebec provincial police have raided an office belonging to the railway involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster, adding to a growing pile of legal concerns for the U.S. company.

Investigators searched for clues Thursday inside the Farnham branch of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway as part of their ongoing criminal probe into the deadly July 6 derailment.

Farnham, a town between Montreal and Lac-Megantic, is also the home of Tom Harding, the engineer of the runaway train that smashed into Lac-Megantic and killed an estimated 47 people.

A police spokesman said it was unclear how long the operation would last — or whether there could be similar searches conducted outside Quebec.

"We'll be in Farnham as long as it takes to gather all the evidence we're looking for there," Insp. Michel Forget told reporters in Lac-Megantic.

"We will work with other police forces — either outside the country or in Canada — to conduct the necessary raids...

"For the moment there are no other raids, either in Canada or the U.S. Other organizations are investigating and I'll let them comment on that."

A number of lawsuits have been launched in the case, in addition to separate investigations being conducted by police and transportation-safety officials. The disaster has already prompted some changes to federal safety guidelines for railways.

Police said the Farnham investigation team, made up of around 15 people, uncovered some evidence Thursday, but they declined to discuss it.

The probe has already reached MMA chairman Ed Burkhardt, who was questioned for hours by provincial police during his recent visit to Lac-Megantic.

An official with the Maine-based company said Thursday she was aware of the police operation at its Farnham office, but she did not offer any further details. An executive with Burkhardt's Illinois-based Rail World Inc., MMA's major stockholder, said she was only made aware of the police activity after receiving a call from the media.

The company has 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.

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 alleged 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. She said the crews would have left town if they weren't paid.

The letter told the company it had 48 hours — or until noon Thursday — to respond.

A few hours after the deadline passed, Roy-Laroche told reporters that Lac-Megantic never heard from MMA. She said she had hoped MMA would have conducted itself like a good corporate citizen.

"It was the least we could have expected from the company," said Roy-Laroche. She said the town is now evaluating, with the help of the provincial government and legal experts, how it will proceed.

"It's too early to say which route and procedure we will take."

And this might only be the start of the company's legal problems.

On Thursday, two more wrongful-death lawsuits were filed in an Illinois court against Rail World, MMA, Burkhardt and several U.S. petroleum companies linked to the disaster. They followed another similar lawsuit presented Monday by the same Illinois firm.

Attorney Peter Flowers filed the court documents on behalf of the loved ones of three people killed in the derailment — Jean-Guy Veilleux, 32, Genevieve Breton, 28, and Melissa Roy, 29.

Flowers has said he expects to present more than a dozen additional suits that could each seek millions in damages.

Aldana indicated the company has yet to be served with a wrongful-death lawsuit, but Flowers said it could take several days before the defendants receive the documents.

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.

A spokesman for Gowlings, a major law firm that has represented MMA in Canada for years, declined to comment Thursday on the railway's legal situation.

Back in Lac-Megantic, locals are still seeking closure on loved ones missing since the derailment and presumed dead.

The provincial coroner's office said it had identified the remains of two more victims since Tuesday, bringing the total number to 31.

Search crews have recovered 42 bodies so far and officials believe that five more are still buried amid the debris of the devastated town.

New Democrat MP Olivia Chow, who was in the community Thursday, said she was pleased Transport Canada made changes this week to railway regulations, such as the rule to ensure trains have two operators rather than just one.

The NDP's transport critic, however, said she was disappointed her party was unable to sway the House of Commons transport committee to work through the summer to examine safety systems of MMA and those of other railways.

"Being here, so close to the site where the tragedy happened, gives me even more inspiration to work even harder to improve rail safety," Chow told reporters.

Meanwhile, the parish priest in Lac-Megantic made preparations 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, a ceremony that will be presided over by Luc Cyr, the archbishop of Sherbrooke.

Organizers have reserved 700 places in the 1,000-seat church for loved ones of the derailment victims, while remaining pews in the church have been set aside for locals, volunteers and dignitaries. Maine Gov. Paul LePage is expected to be among those in attendance.

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

"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."

Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, meanwhile, met with several mayors from Quebec's Eastern Townships Thursday to discuss their concerns regarding rail safety.

In a statement issued after the meeting in Dorval, Que., Raitt said the concerns of the mayors are ‘‘quite legitimate.‘‘

‘’They want to ensure safety in their communities, balanced with the needs of their economy. This is the goal of the federal government as well," she said.

Raitt had visited Lac-Megantic on July 17 _ two days after she was handed the transport portfolio in a cabinet shuffle.

_ With a file from Sidhartha Banerjee

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