The 2013 Michener Award finalists talk about their award winning stories and the people who helped make them happen – Michener Awards Ceremony, June 11, 2014.
Last summer, a train laden with crude oil derailed and exploded in the middle of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Senior writer Jacquie McNish describes the Globe’s investigation into the factors that contributed to this rail disaster including lax government oversight and industry complacency.
Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, fellow journalists and fellow talented investigative journalists.
We are here tonight to celebrate not only an incredible group of determined journalists, but we are celebrating stories I think that every one of us wished never happened.
And so it was, in the early hours of July 6, a train carrying 72 cars of oil slammed into Lac-Mégantic, immediately incinerating 47 people. No municipality, regulator, shipper or railway in North America was prepared in any way for this horror.
Canadian transportation rules were so lax that emergency response plans for hazardous rail shipments such as oil were deemed unnecessary. Responders battling fireballs of burning oil for three days had to haul foam retardant from a nearby pulp and paper mill.
The most disturbing thing about these disturbing facts is that there were many alarms that should have alerted a lot of people to the risks. Oil on the rails jumped from virtually nothing in 2009 to nearly 1 million barrels of oil a day to accommodate an oil rush in North Dakota, yet no new rules or safety measures followed.
When North Dakota pipelines filed public complaints about lethal and illegal gas levels in the Bakken oil, there were no railway or regulatory responses to these dangers.
Trains carrying long conveys of oil snake through our communities on tracks designed a century ago for coal, lumber and passengers. None of us spoke up. None of us asked questions.
Many of us are so desensitized to modern risks that when the Globe and Mail began questioning explosive crude we were lectured repeatedly that there was nothing wrong.
– Lac-Mégantic was a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe, we were told by railway officials.
– Local propane tanks detonated the oil, oil experts in North Dakota told us.
– Scientists, who once warned us that volatile gases in the Bakken oil were a concern, told us when we called them that the issues had been fixed.
Faced with such denial, a team at The Globe and Mail did something that lies at the core of investigative journalism we’re talking about tonight: we dug in our heels and as Karen Kleiss said so eloquently at the National Newspaper awards, we got pissed off.
After our series documented the dangers and haphazard supervision of explosive Bakken crude, the denials did stop. Ottawa introduced new laws reclassifying crude oil as a hazardous substance and imposed tough new safety and testing rules. Tighter regulations also followed in the United States.
None of this would be possible without the commitment of a great team of journalists at The Globe and Mail. The most relentless of our journalists, Grant Robertson, talked his way on to a North Dakota oil loading facility and cajoled a federal minister to speak about the dangers of oil on the record – a rare thing in this town.
Kim Mackrael hounded federal officials – she chased them down hallways until she got what we needed. And Justin Giovannetti spent a summer at Lac-Mégantic winning the trust of haunted survivors. Others, Les Perreaux, Brent Jang and Moe Doiron contributed in many, many ways to this project.
Finally we are grateful to Sinclair Stewart and Dennis Choquette for supporting an investigation that many people thought was a red herring.
Since Lac-Mégantic, there have been four explosive derailments of Bakken Oil. These fiery spills have burned swamps, rivers and fields outside of communities. There were no deaths in these communities. The men, women and children of Lac-Mégantic were not so fortunate.
Michener Awards Ceremony
June 11, 2014.