08/18/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 10/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Lac-Mégantic needs public inquiry over regulatory failures, CCPA says

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is calling for an independent public inquiry into last summer's Lac-Mégantic train disaster, expressing fear a highly anticipated report into the accident by the Transportation Safety Board will not go far enough to expose government regulatory failures.

"There may be a reluctance to go hard on senior officials at Transport Canada," Bruce Campbell, executive director of the Ottawa-based advocacy group, told CBC News.  

The TSB is to table its findings Tuesday into the various reasons the runaway train of unmanned tanker cars raced backward downhill, derailed loads of crude oil and exploded in the heart of Lac-Mégantic, Que., in July 2013, killing 47 people.

But today, the CCPA released its own report, which identifies what Campbell says are eight key failures by government watchdogs that he believes contributed to the tragedy.

"Let's be clear: the Transportation Safety Board is not a truly independent body," Campbell said. "Its members are appointed by the government and serve at its pleasure."

"You know all the evidence so far points to Transport Canada not doing the necessary internal due diligence, and not taking the kind of responsibility for its own weaknesses and its own failures in its regulatory regime, and its lack of oversight."

He said he chose to release his group's own findings one day ahead of the TSB report because he has grown alarmed by government statements in recent months, including Transport Minister Lisa Raitt suggesting last month the tragedy likely occurred because of individuals or companies not respecting the rules, instead of regulatory gaps.

The CCPA report concludes Transport Canada is responsible for the following problems that contributed to the tragedy:

- Vague rules for railway companies which are often waived or "exempted."

- Allowance of one-man crews on locomotives.

- Failure to heed years of TSB concerns about the safety of DOT-111 tanker cars.

- Lax testing and disregard for the explosiveness of Bakken crude oil bound for Canada.

- Lack of oversight, audits and enforcement of rail company “safety management systems."

- Flaws in risk assessment processes and protocols.

- Complacency and lack of regulatory resources in light of a boom in oil-by-rail transport.

- "Cozy" ties to rail industry allowing companies to become too powerful, compromising public safety.

The CCPA cites testimony from parliamentary hearings, as well as the findings from numerous different media exposés — including a CBC News rail safety investigation — to bolster its conclusions.

Transport Canada, which has been notoriously slow to provide responses to media questions, has not had an opportunity to respond to the CCPA report. But the government department has made numerous changes in the wake of the disaster to enhance rail safety — including disallowing one-man crews, requiring upgrades to tanker cars, as well as enhancing safeguards around security of trains and train brakes.

In addition to questions around government failures, police in Quebec have laid criminal charges against three employees with the Montreal Maine and Atlantic railway in the wake of the disaster.  

The CCPA’s Campbell notes that the Lac-Mégantic case has been of personal interest to him, as one of his colleagues lost three cousins in the disaster.

He argues that a fully independent public inquiry is still needed regardless of tomorrow's TSB conclusions and recommendations, noting the TSB does not have the power to call witnesses and to compel public testimony.

“This is the worst rail disaster in a century, and why doesn't it deserve or warrant an external, fully independent inquiry," he said. "I think it's absolutely necessary.”