In My Opinion

Dita De Boni is a Herald business columnist

Dita De Boni: Our own runaway train fears

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Pressure building to mine, frack and otherwise exploit our landscape in the name of progress

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

There is nothing particularly "honourable" about New Zealand's honorary consul to Chicago, Edward Burkhardt.

Burkhardt is president of Rail World, which carries shale oil from North Dakota through Canada east to New Brunswick and owns the company whose train obliterated 1 per cent of the population of the town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec on July 6.

The accident is bad enough - a train laden with 72 cars of oil rolls backwards, unmanned, down an 11km incline and into a crowd of night-time revellers, exploding.

It was compounded by Burkhardt avoiding the scene of the carnage for several days, claiming he could deal with the crisis better from his Chicago office.

But take a step back. His company, according to the BBC, already had a poor safety record. North America's rail accident average is 14.6 per million miles travelled, compared with 36.1 per million for Rail World. And Rail World's trains specialise in hazardous cargo.

A Guardian column by Martin Lukacs provides further context: a Canadian rail industry totally deregulated in the late 1980s with health and safety turned over to the industry itself; old cars used aboard trains transporting the oil despite warnings of the danger; and a new law allowing the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, owner of the crashed train, to operate with just one engineer on the long risky run.

Edward Burkhardt is no stranger to New Zealand, where he led the privatisation of NZ Rail in the 1990s and was chairman of Tranz Rail Holdings while head of key shareholder Wisconsin Central Transportation. His reward - besides, no doubt, a hefty pay packet - was the honorary consul position he has held since 1995.

Although our railways may not be vulnerable to the same sort of explosion disaster, New Zealand as a whole faces the need for a debate of the type Martin Lukacs prescribes for Canada and much of the rest of the world: "about the need for another kind of brake, over the mad pursuit of infinite resources, and the unshackling of reckless corporations, on a finite and fragile planet".

As New Zealanders facing an uncertain economic future, the pressure is building to mine, frack and otherwise exploit our landscape in the name of progress. Some of these proposals do make economic sense, on their face.

But who is held responsible when things go tits-up; when lives are lost and irreparable damage ensues? Because at the very least we need to ensure the corporate puppet-masters behind these plans have such a fear of failure - of destroying our environment, for example - that it is simply not an option. That's current best business practice, after all.

There is a pressing need to clarify this issue as Anadarko, the partner in BP's deep-sea drilling venture that spilled 650,000 tonnes of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, plans to begin deep-sea drilling in summer off New Zealand's coast.

Whether we are dealing in Anadarko with an environmentally conscious corporate citizen or a cowboy is, for the average person, hard to know.

Whatever the case, we don't need the kind of irreversible business and life lesson meted out in Lac-Megantic visited on our still beautiful shores.

- NZ Herald

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