The Lac-Mégantic conflagration

Hard to believe, but yet another corporate malefactor turns out to be a hollow shell, devoid of assets and accountability, and this time half of a town got obliterated because of it.  With every emerging detail, the derailment and explosion of an unmanned (!) train in Lac Megantic, Quebec turns out to be the same old plot with new characters.  A larger concern with assets to protect “spins off” its shoddiest and riskiest parts, and any attendant liabilities, and leaves it alone to flame out, usually not so literally, but still leaving everyone but the con artists at the top holding the conveniently empty bag just the same.

Corporate personhood, it turns out, vanishes into thin air when the shit hits the fan, and the fleeced, injured, or dead might as well try to sue a soap bubble.  Thus, even dying industries can make a some people rich, and as death be not proud, they really don’t much care how they go about it.

Ever since the reign of St Ronnie, when managed, slow-motion slides into bankruptcy emerged as a neat trick for corporations to achieve otherwise tricky but hardly uncommon ends: bailing out on pension obligations, cutting pay and benefits, and busting unions.  Steelmakers, auto manufacturers, airlines, newspapers, retailers, you name it: once a competitor succeeded at unloading such pesky liabilities, the rest jumped on board, and industry after industry followed suit.

Of course, once a company is reduced to a few MBA’s at the top and a rump contingent of insecure wage slaves below, lo and behold, its life expectancy begins resemble that of a six pack of Mountain Dew in a meth house, and, just as in a meth house, at that point it’s time to strip the wiring.

The “railroad,” if you want to call it that, was a formerly near-dormant short line, once part of the US-based Rail World network, suddenly became potentially profitable again when North Dakota Bakken shale oil appeared as the latest filthy carbon flash in the pan.  Of course, the rolling stock was unsafe and had to be grandfathered in, and a few arms had to be twisted to allow trains to operate with one engineer instead of two, but all this was necessary because once it was spun off its larger corporate parents, the poor little company couldn’t afford to do any better.

The oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, reflects the same mentality:  why wouldn’t you take a 60-year old pipeline designed for crude oil at a given pressure in one direction, and reverse it, increase the pressure, and fill it with corrosive diluted bitumen?  What could possibly go wrong?  Worse, if it does, who cares?  Declare a no fly zone, in a pinch.  Eco-terrorism, and all that.

The current orgy of this sort of corporate asset-stripping, even when not overly deadly, is as astonishing to behold as it is repellent to the onlooker, but luckily enough, we now have riot police and government spies to keep the process running as smoothly as possible, whether they be paramilitaries patrolling Wisconsin strip mines, local cops bashing hippie heads along the Keystone route, or Chevron demanding (and getting) all the phone and email records of its opponents for use against them in court.

But for every large corporation that uses its Goliath-like “personhood” to muscle government and law enforcement into doing its bidding, there are a dozen tiny little spun-off shells expressly created to act as sacrificial lambs when the bodies and lawsuits start piling up, and it looks as though this railroad is one of them.  But never fear, families of the (at least) 50 dead: the company, poor as it is, at least has insurance, from something called XL group, based in no-tax Ireland with executive offices in…. you guessed it, Bermuda.

Any guesses how this story will end?