After ‘end of the world’ explosion, Quebec town tries to find hope

The wreckage of a train is pictured after an explosion in Lac-Megantic, in this file picture taken July 6, 2013.
MATHIEU BELANGER | REUTERS
The wreckage of a train is pictured after an explosion in Lac-Megantic, in this file picture taken July 6, 2013.
Posted April 17, 2014, at 6:48 a.m.
Yannick Gagne in his bar, the Musicafé, in June 2013, before a train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. Gagne says 30 people died in the bar.
Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
Yannick Gagne in his bar, the Musicafé, in June 2013, before a train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. Gagne says 30 people died in the bar.

Second of two parts

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Eight months ago, the people of Lac-Megantic thought the world was ending.

A runaway 72-car train carrying a volatile variety of crude oil derailed and exploded in this community of 6,000, killing 47 people and destroying the town center.

On a rare sunny morning in early March, ice melted to slush and water trickled into sewer drains in this village 10 miles from Maine’s western border.

The sound made Yannick Gagne smile — a reminder to him that spring is coming.

“Spring will be good for the people here,” Gagne, 35, said. “The winter has been long and hard.”

Gagne owned the Musicafe, a local bar where he said 30 people perished.

Just after midnight Saturday, July 6, it was peaceful, said Gagne — people were listening to music and clinking bottles of beer; a group of friends celebrated a birthday; others took a smoke break on the new patio.

Moments after 1 a.m., a train hauling millions of gallons of crude oil sped into town at 60 mph, without signals or lights.

When the hurtling train jumped the tracks and derailed in the center of town, some patrons thought it was an earthquake, said Gagne. Many hid beneath wooden tables and granite countertops. Some rushed to the bathroom.

Within seconds, a bright orange flash lit up the city.

“They must have thought it was the end of the world,” said Gagne, who was at his home half a mile away at the time, having left the bar a bit earlier. “People had between three and five seconds to think.”

A giant fireball erupted from a flood of crude oil. People jumped from windows trying to escape, said Gagne.

Survivors who outran the fire made it to safe areas, including a church up the hill, then turned to look back and watch as a wall of fire consumed their town.

Within a half hour, the entire downtown area had burned down, leaving rubble and piles of debris where 30 buildings once stood. The bodies of five people never have been found.

Since then, the town of Lac-Megantic has been trying to recover.

“It changed all our lives,” Gagne said. “The people here are despairing. They don’t know what to do.”

The tank cars released enough crude oil — 1.6 million gallons — to fill 32,000 bathtubs. About 26,000 gallons seeped into the nearby Chaudiere River, bringing the total estimated amount of contaminated sewer, lake and groundwater to 12.3 million gallons, the city estimates.

The memory of the explosion has traumatized residents, and Gagne said not a day goes by when he doesn’t see a mother, friend or grandmother of a victim of the deceased.

He is known by everyone in town — but wishes he were not.

“It’s a heavy, deep weight we all feel here,” Gagne said, motioning to his shoulders.

The winter has been particularly difficult. Some friends have started taking prescription pills to numb the pain, he said, while more than 100 small-business owners struggle to re-establish themselves.

With his head in his hands, Gagne said he is overwhelmed, not just by sadness, but anger — anger at the railroads, the regulators, the shippers. His attempts to channel his frustrations into rebuilding his cafe have been met by money problems.

“We want to build anew, but it’s difficult,” said Gagne.

He hopes the government will reimburse 50 percent of his reconstruction costs, which he says will be triple the original cost. His insurance has not been enough, he said.

“What am I do? Why must we still suffer? I am not guilty. We are not guilty,” he said. “But we, the city, are paying for this. It’s criminal. It’s a criminal act.”

One man helping to lead the rebuilding is City Councilor Roger Garant, who hopes looking toward Lac-Megantic’s future together will inspire residents.

“What we’re going to have is a new city,” said Garant.

He and city press attache Louis Longchamps say the total cost for rebuilding the broken village could total $2.7 billion over the next decade.

To clean up the contaminated land, sewer system and nearby bodies of water, such as the Chaudiere River, will cost $200 million at minimum, said Garant.

As in the U.S., there is no easy solution to the key question plaguing the city after last July’s crude oil explosion: Who pays?

Here, the Canadian government has taken financial responsibility while the railroad company, oil shippers, rail equipment manufacturers and federal regulators are sued by victims and each other to determine who is at fault.

Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, the Chicago-based railroad company that operated the train that carried the crude oil into Lac-Megantic, had $25 million in insurance, an amount that is both typical of and typically available for railroads that operate over short distances.

The insurance money largely will go toward settlements for victims of the disaster and to the city for environmental cleanup costs, according to Longchamps. The vast majority of the city’s overall recovery efforts will be reimbursed by taxpayers, he said, with half coming from the provincial government and the other half from the federal government.

MMA declared bankruptcy shortly after the accident, and its assets are now in the process of being purchased by Fortress Investment Group, a New York-based firm, for $15.7 million. The U.S. Surface Transportation Board approved the purchase on March 17, but the Canadian authorities’ review could delay the purchase until June, the Bangor Daily News reported.

If Canada approves the purchase, the line traversing straight across Maine to an Irving Oil refinery in New Brunswick will become the Central Maine and Quebec Railway.

The months without rail service hurt Lac-Megantic’s economy, slowing down business for industrial yards.

Rail service through Lac-Megantic started again in December, though no crude oil has been transported since last August.

The recovering city is now making a costly demand of Fortress: Reroute the railway around the town.

The new route, approximately 9 miles, could cost $50 million to $80 million, estimates Longchamps.

“We need the train; it’s part of our economy and we need it,” said Longchamps, who attended a Feb. 24 meeting with Fortress representatives and Lac-Megantic officials. But if tank cars could go around the city, he said, “it would help.”

He said though Fortress representatives listened to the request, the firm likely won’t make a decision until after the purchase is completed. Garant said that if all else fails, Lac-Megantic would ask the Canadian government to pay for it.

Whether the new line would carry crude oil, which proved to be a temporary boon for Maine’s struggling rail industry, is unknown.

“We have to have a conversation with regulators, authorities or shippers about the possibility of carrying crude over the [railway],” Fortress representative John Giles, who will serve as CEO of Central Maine and Quebec Railway, wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News. “In fact, we haven’t satisfied ourselves that we are capable of carrying crude safely and efficiently. That would and should be a pre-condition to doing so.”

Giles did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.

Eight months later, the decimated area where the train exploded still has years to go before being thoroughly decontaminated.

Work has continued throughout the winter, when layers of snow began covering lofty piles of excavated soil and what’s left of charred buildings.

A paved road, accessible only by construction workers, cuts through the area and bypasses repaired railroad tracks.

At the end of the road, construction workers are building two rows of new buildings. Garant said they will house a supermarket, bank, liquor store and drugstore.

Town officials are trying to involve residents in planning Lac-Megantic’s future.

“Now we have to decide, do we want to still be a small city, or do we want to grow bigger and attract tourism?” said Garant.

This month, town officials have begun to gather ideas from residents.

“Most North American cities got bigger without sitting down and discussing what they’re going to look like in 50, 75 years,” said Longchamps. “We’re inviting everyone to the table, to share any dream they have, no matter how crazy it might seem.”

One day leaders hope to build a park where the center of town once stood.

On a street known as Villeneuve — or new city — billboards advertising real estate developments promise a “new start.” Gagne points out buildings with burned-up roofs and sidings, including a church, all slated to be bulldozed.

“It’s going to take time for us to rebuild, maybe much more time than we thought,” Gagne said. “All we can do is keeping breathing and hoping.”

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, non-profit news service based in Hallowell. Email: mainecenter@gmail.com. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org

 

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