Canadian town ravaged by oil train fire still in turmoil one year later
One year after an oil-laden train derailed, exploded and killed 47 people in a town in Canada’s Quebec province, trains are rolling again but locals are hardly thrilled.
The picturesque lakeside town of Lac-Megantic was transformed by the inferno — Canada’s worst rail catastrophe in 15 years.
An area of 2.5 square kilometers (one square mile) was ravaged. And for now, only trains carrying lumber rumble through the town, located about 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Montreal.
That is enough to scare people in the town of 6,000, who now live in what looks like a giant construction site.
“People hate that,” said Edith, manager of a grocery store just 50 meters (yards) from the turn where the 72-car train derailed in the early morning hours of July 6, 2013.
The train carrying 7.2 million liters (1.9 million gallons) of crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in easternmost Canada came loose in the middle of the night, rolled downhill unmanned and derailed in the center of town.
Firefighters needed two days to put out the raging blaze. Seven of the dead were never identified.
For now, hazardous materials are barred from passing through Lac-Megantic. But locals are convinced “it will not be long before the black cars come back,” Edith said, referring to train cars carrying oil.
Somehow, her shop and the church across the street escaped damage from the fire. Since the tragedy, she says customers are demoralized by the slow pace of reconstruction of the gutted part of town and the wait for insurance companies to pay up.
Her partner Jocelyn sums up thusly how locals are torn over the future: “If there were no more trains, this would be a ghost town.”
Local companies depend on the trains to export their forestry products. Indeed, the rail lines were among the first infrastructure elements rebuilt after the accident.
Around these brand new tracks, bulldozers dig up earth contaminated to a depth of seven meters by the spilled shale oil being shipped in from North Dakota.
– ‘An open wound’-
Of some shopping streets along the lake, nothing remains. Thirty buildings were reduced to ashes, and just as many are awaiting demolition. Vegetation was scorched away. Only some trees on the limits of ground zero remain, and they are half-burned.
Some stores, and notably the bar where most of the fatalities occurred, were only recently rebuilt, just a stone’s throw from the ravaged downtown area, as merchants await a plan from town hall for an overall revitalization plan.
Authorities have launched a public appeal for ideas on what to do, even to elementary school students. “For a town of this size, that is unprecedented,” said one urban planner working on the project.
In a town hall session on a June evening, some 350 people were asked to comment on proposed projects, such as a new hotel, an “urban forest” and a public square by the lake.
Often, the issue of the train tracks comes up. As the plan stands now, the railway lines will continue to run through town.
“That will remain an open wound if we do not move them,” said Marcel Philippon, a retiree who said the urban planners’ projects are very ambitious.
The town will adopt an action plan by the end of the year on the basis of the recommendations it receives. But no one knows what will happen with the train tracks.
A stretch bypassing the town would be only nine kilometers long, but the cost is estimated at between $50-150 million.
The railroad is owned by the US firm Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway, and neither it nor the Quebec authorities seem keen on assuming that cost on their own.
But Remi Tremblay, editor in chief of the local newspaper L’Echo de Frontenac, said: “There is a consensus among the population for a bypass rail line. It is about the only thing on which there is agreement.”