Spring should be a time of renewal and hope, especially after such a long and relentless winter. But for residents of Lac-Mégantic and the surrounding areas, the melting snow is once again revealing the charred rubble of a ghost town and stirring up the crude oil that had for months been out of sight — if not out of mind — at the bottom of icy rivers.
It’s not possible for people here to forget the night last July when a runaway train carrying crude oil came thundering into town, derailed and exploded, turning a downtown into debris and claiming 47 lives. Nearly 6 million litres of crude oil spilled.
But the snowy winter has for months covered up parts of the devastation and at least temporarily concealed the environmental toll. Now, with spring really and truly here, two towns along the Chaudière River have opted to find alternative sources of drinking water as oil resurfaces. The towns, St. Georges and St. Marie, are accustomed to dealing with the fallout of the disaster, both had to use bottled water for more than two months after the accident.
The Montreal Gazette reported that residents and teams from Quebec’s environment department have seen oil sheens on the surface of the river in the last week. The Chaudière River starts in Lac-Mégantic and flows into the St. Lawrence River some 100 miles downstream. Water samples taken from the river have also confirmed the presence of oil. While the level of oil currently being detected does not exceed safe limits, the chemical smell of the river being reported miles downstream from the site of the accident is not bolstering residents’ confidence.
“When the ice started to move, and the water level went up, we thought it was the right thing to do, given what happened at Lac-Mégantic last summer,” Ste-Marie Mayor Gaétan Vachon told the Montreal Gazette in explaining his decision to find other sources of water for his town of 13,300 people. “With the hydrocarbons that are at the bottom of the river, we wanted to be careful.”
A report on the state of the contaminated river is due in May. Perhaps as much as 300,000 litres ended up in the waterway.
The total cost for rebuilding Lac-Mégantic may be around $2.7 billion over the next decade. Cleaning up the contaminated land and water bodies will add another $200 million to the price tag of the disaster.