After the Fire

As they try to cope with the trauma of losing so many of their neighbors, friends and family members, residents of Lac-Mégantic have been forced to grapple with another ordeal: fear that the oil train accident may have done long-term damage to the area’s environment.

Lac-Mégantic is situated on a gentle slope that follows the contours of an old streambed and eventually drains into the lake, for which the town is named, and the Chaudière River. On a map of Lac-Mégantic Rejean Campagna shows me where the streambed was located before the area – once a swamp – was filled in to build the town. When the oil spilled it basically followed that drainage path, Campagna says.

Ground Zero - Lac-Mégantic, Été 2013photo by Axel Drainville, on FlickrLac-Mégantic, August 2013.

Because so much of the oil burned it has been difficult to determine the precise quantity that ended up in the river. According to Quebec’s Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment, and Parks, more than 1.5 million gallons of oil were released on the morning of July 6. At least 26,000 gallons ended up in the Chaudière River, which eventually flows into the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City. Drinking water bans were issued for towns located more than 50 miles downstream. (Lac-Mégantic draws its water from municipal wells beneath a layer of clay and there is no sign that they’ve been contaminated.) The environment ministry says that more than 11,400 gallons of oily water were removed from the river alone; another 12.98 million gallons of oily water were taken out of the sewers, lake, and surrounding land. In addition, between 20,000 and 29,500 gallons of soil were contaminated.

Daniel Green, president of an environmental monitoring group in Quebec, sampled surface water and river sediment in July, shortly after the accident, and then in October. “Almost everywhere we walked in the river oil would plume up,” Green says. “What we’re finding out is that land-based massive crude oil spills, either from a pipeline or a train, really affect surface water and bottom sediment of rivers. This is the lesson learned from Mégantic and Kalamazoo.” Green was referring to a 2010 pipeline break in Michigan, which released more than 800,000 gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River and cost more than $1 billion to clean up.

In late January Quebec’s environment ministry held its first public presentation on the spill’s long-term environmental impacts. About 250 residents gathered in the local high school auditorium, which had served as a temporary shelter in the weeks after the accident.

Before the meeting I stopped by the offices of the local newspaper, L’Echo, to meet with its editor-in-chief, Rémi Tremblay. He says there are still more questions than answers surrounding the accident and cleanup. “I’m not sure that it’s safe,” he says, referring to the “red-zone,” a fenced-off area that now divides the town’s northern and southern sections. It will be closed to the public for several years.

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There’s a certain level of disbelief in Lac-Mégantic that, after so much oil was released into a relatively small geographical area, the ecological impacts have been contained. Residents are concerned about soil, air, and water quality in the area as well as contamination of agricultural land within the Chaudière River floodplain. At a closed-door Q&A for the media after the presentation Tremblay asked Yves-François Blanchet, then head of Quebec’s environment ministry, if the government was withholding any information from the public. To Tremblay’s surprise, Blanchet admitted that, yes, there was information about disaster that they could not disclose because of the ongoing criminal investigation. However, Blanchet said, the information would have no bearing on public health.

Tremblay is unconvinced. He voices a concern shared by many of the residents of Lac-Mégantic: that the government is downplaying the long-term environmental impacts of the accident and the risks associated with oil-by-rail to protect the oil and gas industry. Canada is witnessing the same kind of oil-by-rail expansion that is taking place in the US. There are at least six new rail terminal projects underway in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba that would allow for the movement of more than 900,000 barrels of oil a day, more than the capacity of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

“They want to show that they are in control of the situation and they can pursue projects for Quebec,” Tremblay says.

That certainly was the message put forward by government officials during the public hearing. The following day the headline on the cover of the regional paper, La Tribune, read: “Blanchet Reassures People of Mégantic.”

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