“The Whole City Would Have Burned”
One year later, the small town of Lac-Megantic is still at the heart of oil-by-rail debate
Jean Dubé runs an office supply store in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic. Both his store and home were badly damaged in last year’s devastating oil-train derailment that killed 47 people and destroyed more than 40 buildings. Oil filled the basement. Still, he opened three days after the accident and relocated his inventory to an employee’s garage. Basic office supplies were in high demand so they delivered everything by car and truck. One of Dubé’s cousins, Marie France Boulet, was killed in the accident. She lived and worked in the center of town. Because of the extraordinary heat of the burning oil—the fire could be felt from more than a mile away—her body was never recovered. Six months later, her older sister, Louise Boulet, died of a heart attack.
Photo by Michel Gagnon
When I met Dubé in late January he had reopened in a makeshift warehouse just across the tracks from where the train exploded. He still didn’t know what would happen to his home and store. But he had little doubt that oil, much of it from North Dakota’s Bakken formation, would once again be transported through Lac-Megantic. He rubbed his thumb and index finger together and said flatly that it was all about the money.
Indeed, soon after Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc., the Maine-based railroad company blamed for the derailment went bankrupt and was purchased by the New York-based Fortress Investment Group in May, talk of resuming oil shipments began.
In the past five years shipping oil by rail has dramatically boosted rail industry profits and that has, in turn, increased the number of accidents and oil spills. At first, the Lac-Megantic disaster was viewed as a freak accident. But since then trains carrying Bakken crude oil have derailed in Alabama, North Dakota, Philadelphia, and Virginia. Last year more oil spilled in rail accidents — 1.15 million gallons — than the previous 35 years combined. (Read my Journal’s cover story “Highly Flammable,” to learn more about this.) Given the huge profits involved in moving crude by rail, it’s almost certain that oil trains will rumble through Lac Megantic again.
In an interview with the regional paper La Tribune, a local official was quoted as saying, “For the new owner, it’s essential to transport oil on our rail line. It’s unavoidable. It’s certain that we will soon see oil through the center of Lac-Megantic.”
Of course the center of Lac-Megantic no longer really exists. The town has been divided between its northern and southern sections and you have to take a 10-minute detour through an industrial park to get from one end to the other. Before, you could have driven or walked through the downtown— where Dubé’s shop used to be — and crossed the bridge over the Chaudiere River to the other side. Though it might seem like a minor inconvenience, for those who live in Lac-Megantic it is a daily reminder of how deeply this event has reshaped their lives.
In addition to claiming the lives of 47 people in this small town, 26,000 gallons of oil were released into the river (In total more than 1.5 million gallons of oil were spilled but most of it burned). Close to 30,000 gallons of soil were contaminated. The burning oil — described by residents as a “river of fire” — surged through the town’s sewer system, crippling the water treatment plant. Fire erupted out of manholes and storm pipes, and most of the old wooden homes along the lake were reduced to ash. One year later the town still faces the enormous task of cleaning up and rebuilding. In a recent email, Dubé characterized the situation in Lac-Megantic as an “unknown mountain.” “We still know nothing,” he wrote. “We still don’t know what we have in front of us.”
The blast site, or red zone, is fenced off and closed to the public. There’s a checkpoint at either end. When I toured the site with Sylvaine Perreault, an emergency responder who had been living in the town since the accident, I had to wear a hard hat, steel toed boots, and a bright orange and yellow vest. An elaborate system of culverts and pipes had been constructed to pump the oily water into large holding tanks where it was treated and then returned to the river.
Signs celebrating last year’s summer season were still wrapped against the metal lampposts: “La voie ferree,” “A la voie lactee,” “Ouverte tout le monde,” “Au rhythm du lac.” Even though the buildings were abandoned and their fate uncertain, the village still had to heat them to keep the pipes from freezing. Aside from a few emergency workers tending to the damaged sewage system the zone was empty.
Not far from the old downtown and next to the new sports center, which had become a kind of temporary memorial and hub for social services, a hastily built commercial district was set to open. It was the future site of Lac-Megantic’s “downtown,” a row of identical looking buildings with plastic siding about the length of two city blocks. The provincial liquor store, SAQ, had already opened but the rest of the storefronts were empty and a metal fence blocked access to them. It looked like a cheap movie set. No one, other than government officials, seemed to have much faith in its viability.
For a town of its size Lac-Megantic had a highly advanced water treatment system — it had used organic treatment methods for decades. Robert Mercier, the town’s director of environmental services, says that Lac-Megantic was ahead of the curve when it came to environmental stewardship. Of course, the lake and river supplied much of the town’s livelihood, attracting tourists and second homeowners from Quebec City and Montreal. Residents of Lac-Megantic were far removed from the contentious debate over new energy development in North America. Or so they thought.
Still, Mercier, who was up for 60 hours straight during the blaze, says that Lac-Megantic was lucky. On July 6, there was a west wind and in the early morning hours a heavy rain began to fall. “In a way it saved us,” Mercier told me. “If there’d been a south wind the whole city would have burned.”