05/14/2014 04:43 EDT | Updated 07/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Lac-Megantic railway executive Burkhardt says 'no comment' on criminal charges

MONTREAL - The railway chairman who became the target of local anger in Lac-Megantic says he has no intention of discussing criminal charges filed against his company and three of its employees.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway boss Ed Burkhardt responded by email Wednesday to questions about the accusations.

"I'm afraid I will have no comment on these events," Burkhardt wrote to The Canadian Press.

The MMA and employees Thomas Harding, Jean Demaitre and Richard Labrie were each charged Tuesday with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death — one for every victim of last summer's derailment in the Quebec town.

Several locals who watched police march the accused into a Lac-Megantic courtroom Tuesday described them as scapegoats and said MMA executives should instead be the ones facing justice.

The name Burkhardt, a figure who became public enemy No. 1 in the community after the crash, surfaced several times.

The U.S.-based chairman of the now-insolvent MMA is perhaps best remembered for his tumultuous news conference a few days after the derailment, during which he was heckled by enraged locals.

Burkhardt's frequently blunt public remarks, often lacking sentimentalism, have also made him a source of local frustration.

Meanwhile, the president of MMA has also remained silent since the criminal charges were laid.

Robert Grindrod told The Canadian Press on Wednesday that his lawyers had advised him not to discuss the accusations with the media.

"I don't have any comment," Grindrod said. "That's it."

He said the MMA will be taken over by a new company in the coming days, meaning he and Burkhardt will no longer hold titles with the railway.

It's unclear whether more people would be charged in connection with the July 6 catastrophe that saw a runaway MMA train loaded with volatile crude oil jump the tracks and explode in the downtown core.

Since it is a company, the railway would face only fines if convicted.

For the three employees, meanwhile, a conviction could carry a maximum life sentence.

A spokesman for the Crown said Tuesday that prosecutors could lay more charges because the file is still under examination, though he said the police investigation had been completed.

In Quebec City, opposition politician Amir Khadir said he was stunned the justice system has targeted only the three workers, while railway executives and the government have been shielded from the law.

Khadir also took exception to the way authorities treated Harding, Demaitre and Labrie when they paraded them into the courtroom in front dozens of news cameras and locals. He said the theatrics diverted attention away from the real guilty parties.

"I would have expected to see the federal minister there who decided to weaken the security rules on Canadian railroads, to see them handcuffed and brought before a judge," Khadir said Wednesday.

Asked about the court appearance, Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee said authorities wanted to ensure proceedings were accessible for Lac-Megantic residents.

Harding, the train's driver, Labrie, the railway traffic controller and Demaitre, the manager of train operations each posted $15,000 bail Tuesday and must respect various conditions pending their next court appearance on Sept. 11.

Burkhardt has alleged in public that Harding failed to apply enough handbrakes on the train before it tore down a 10-kilometre-long slope and slammed into Lac-Megantic and killed 47 people.

A couple of hours before the disaster, Harding had parked the train for the night in the neighbouring town of Nantes, about 10 kilometres uphill from town. He then retired to a local inn after his shift.

Harding's lawyer has indicated his client intends to plead not guilty and will seek a jury trial in Lac-Megantic.

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