One Year Later, Site Of Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Crash ‘Still Very Much One Of Horror’

Tankers left after the Lac Megantic disaster in July 2013. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
Tankers left after the Lac Megantic disaster in July 2013. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

One year after an oil train crashed in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, much of the town’s center is still in disarray, with residents and officials struggling to come to terms with the losses the crash inflicted.

On Sunday, Lac-Mégantic’s residents gathered to remember the 47 people who died in the disaster, erecting a granite monument inscribed with the names of the victims on the lawn of Saint Agnes Church. The ceremony began with a midnight mass at the church, which ended right before 1:15 a.m. Sunday — the hour one year ago that the 72-car oil train derailed and exploded. After the mass, more than 1,000 people walked the path of a newly-constructed boardwalk that borders the crash site, a still-barren area known as the “red zone.” The soil in that area still remains too polluted with heavy metals and oil residue for anything to be built on it, so the town is building a new, relocated town center from the ground up.

Later Sunday, the ceremony that unveiled the monument attracted dignitaries including Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and emergency responders from across Canada and the United States. Canada’s Governor General David Johnston also attended the ceremony, lamenting the destruction that the crash has inflicted upon the town but also expressing hope that the town can rebuild.

“The site is still very much one of horror,” Johnston said. “But I’m so struck by the solidarity and the spirit of hope that exists here in Lac-Mégantic…the future will be better and we’ll work together to make it so.”

In addition to the destruction of the red zone, the town’s lakeshore and river are still polluted. In May, the Quebec government released a study that found that the Chaudière River, which runs through Lac-Mégantic, is still contaminated with oil, after more than 26,400 gallons spilled into the river as a result of the crash. So far, Quebec has spent $16 million on river cleanup, a process Quebec Environment Minister David Heurtel described in May as long and costly.

Despite this pollution, part of the ceremony on Sunday focused on continuing to try to restore nature to its former state, with residents planting flowers along the train tracks, releasing 460 butterflies into the air and setting 5,000 young trout free into the lake.

But many of Lac-Mégantic’s residents fear that, despite the town’s efforts to rebuild and recover from the tragedy, oil trains will soon be back. The town depends on oil rail for much of its economy — according to the Wall Street Journal, one in six jobs in Lac-Mégantic depend on rail. The town does want to build a rail line that would redirect trains away from the town’s center, but whether the new route is built will depend partly on how much it will cost and how much the Canadian government agrees to pay. The new owner of the railroad company responsible for the derailment disaster said in May that he wants to restart oil-by-rail shipments through the town’s center within 18 months.

The Lac-Mégantic disaster ignited calls for stricter oil-by-rail regulations, both in Canada and the United States. It also prompted closer looks into the safety of shipping oil by rail. This week, the Wall Street Journal found in a review that the necessary equipment to reduce the explosive elements of Bakken crude oil hasn’t been built in the U.S., with only one stabilizer — which boils out the most explosive gases from oil — being built in North Dakota. Right now, the federal government is trying to decide whether or not stabilizers should be mandated before oil transportation. The stabilizing process wouldn’t make the oil totally risk-free of explosions, but it would help make oil-by-rail transport safer.