Two Years After Oil Train Disaster, Profound Scars Remain in Lac-Mégantic

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Two Years After Oil Train Disaster, Profound Scars Remain in Lac-Mégantic

Activists prepare for demonstrations across Canada and US this week to 'Stop Oil Trains'

On Monday, church bells will ring out 47 times at Lac-Mégantic's St. Agnes Church to commemorate the victims. (Photo: File)

A week of direct actions across Canada and the U.S. to stop so-called "bomb trains" began on Monday, the two-year anniversary of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, when an unmanned train with 72 tankers carrying 30,000 gallons of crude oil careened into a small town in the Canadian province of Quebec, where it derailed, exploded, and killed 47 people.

Decontamination work continues to this day at the crash site, but was suspended at noon for a moment of silence. Later in the day, church bells will ring out 47 times at Lac-Mégantic's St. Agnes Church.

"Two years after Lac-Mégantic, oil trains keep exploding and carbon pollution keeps rising. Oil trains are a disaster for our health, our safety, and our climate."
—Stop Oil Trains

On every level, recovery in the small community has been challenging. 

The Globe and Mail reports: "Two years on, there’s still a pile of toxic dirt where the centre of Lac-Mégantic used to be." Reconstruction efforts have moved quickly and without a lot of transparency, the newspaper reports—perhaps too swiftly for citizens who feel they've been sidelined from negotiations.

Meanwhile, as the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix noted in an editorial on Monday, "the psychological toll on residents has been profound. A report from the local health department in January revealed that while the community has become closer and more resilient, substance abuse and mental health issues have been major challenges."

According to the Montreal Gazette, while a memorial mass on Sunday was well-attended, some residents left town for the weekend "to avoid the memories."

Sunday morning's ceremony was presided over by Rev. Gilles Baril, who became the town's new priest in February. The Gazette explains:

The priest he replaced, Rev. Steve Lemay, was asked by the church to take six months off. Since the earliest moments of the tragedy, Lemay, only in his mid-30s, had been there to help people mourn, to listen to their stories and try to make sense of them.

An entire community had turned to him for answers as he handled many of the victims’ funerals. Drained after a year-and-a-half of doing so, the leave was needed.

“He took a lot on his shoulders and was exhausted,” Baril said of Lemay. “He had to step away before it was too late.”

On Saturday, about 150 people marched in downtown Lac-Mégantic to voice their opposition to the resumption of oil-train service through the town—scheduled for January 2016. The Gazette reports that they dressed all in white, to contrast the color of "dirty oil," and chanted: "Say yes to a bypass railway, say no to another oil spill." Demonstrators lined up elbow-to-elbow on the tracks, and together, symbolically crossed their arms.

Citizens and local elected officials are calling for a new set of tracks that would bypass Lac-Mégantic’s residential sector. "With every passing day, residents are more determined to see it done," said Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche last week about the bypass railway. "As a municipal council, we consider it a must. Not a week goes by that it’s not brought up."

Lac-Mégantic residents have good reason to be concerned. As CBC reported on Sunday, "Montreal, Maine and Atlantic—and the company that bought it after it declared bankruptcy—have experienced a number of train derailments since the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster." 

Furthermore, CBC added: "Since the Lac-Mégantic train crash two years ago, nearly three times as much oil crosses Canada by rail. And it will be a few more years before the DOT-111 train cars involved in that crash will be replaced."

Jonathan Santerre, an activist and founder of the Le Carré Bleu Lac-Mégantic citizens' group, told the Gazette: "It's shocking that after everything that happened, people's lives still come second to money."

A $431.5 million settlement, accepted by victims of the disaster last month and involving about 25 companies accused of responsibility in the July 2013 tragedy, is being held up indefinitely because Canadian Pacific Rail has refused to participate in the settlement offer and is challenging its legitimacy.

According to the Canadian Press: "If CP is successful in its challenge, the families and creditors caught up in the disaster might have to go through years of expensive litigation before seeing any money."

Toward the end of June, new charges under Canada's Railway Safety Act and Fisheries Act were laid against six people and two companies in relation to the 2013 disaster. All those charged will appear in court in Lac-Mégantic on Nov. 12.

On Monday morning, a vigil commemorating Lac-Mégantic took place in Portland, Maine, while activists in Portland, Oregon blocked the tracks at ArcLogistics crude oil distribution terminal.

Both events were part of the Stop Oil Trains Week of Action taking place from July 6-12 in more than 75 cities across North America.

"There is NO safe way to transport extreme tar sands and Bakken crude," states the Stop Oil Trains call to action, backed by groups including ForestEthics, Oil Change International, Center for Biological Diversity, and 350.org.

"Two years after Lac-Mégantic, oil trains keep exploding and carbon pollution keeps rising," the groups declare. "Oil trains are a disaster for our health, our safety, and our climate."

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