On the one year anniversary of the oil train derailment and explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, residents of the community and family members of the victims commemorated the horrific tragedy with a solemn 'silent march' in the early hours on Sunday.
A ceremony was held at a local church before hundreds of people walked through the town's center and crossed the tracks where the deadly train—carrying Bakken formation crude oil from North Dakota and left unattended outside of town—lost the rail in the early hours of July 6, 2013 and exploded near local shops and a bar where many were gathered.
As the Globe and Mail reports:
Many participants in the march wore glowing plastic stars on their chests. Several wiped away tears as they held hands with the person next to them.
Most stared sadly at the downtown area where dozens of buildings were gutted. To this day the zone remains off-limits behind metal fences as decontamination work continues.
A half-dozen people left the march to sit side-by-side on the railway track, looking at their broken town.
Nearby a woman stood by herself, gazing in the same direction while weeping quietly in the darkness.
"I think it was important to do this to complete our mourning process," said walker Bernard Boulet, whose sister Marie-France was declared dead in the disaster, though her remains were never found.
As the community held a series of events designed to help itself heal from the loss, others across Canada and the U.S. planned events to mark the catastrophe, with many asking whether enough has been done to make sure—as the fossil fuel industry scales up its oil-by-rail operations—that more dealy and destructive derailments don't follow.
"You would think that the 47 deaths in Lac-Mégantic would bring about big changes in rail safety," said Keith Steward, a campaigner with Greenpeace Canada. "But the federal government – the only level of government that can regulate what moves on rail lines – has treated this primarily as a public relations problem rather than a public safety problem."
Across the border from Quebec, residents in neighboring Maine—who have protested the oil trains that also pass through their communities—marked the Lac-Mégantic tragedy with a series of memorials and events designed to honor the 47 victims and remind the public of the dangers still posed by the increasing number of rail cars moving across the state.
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“This is very relevant for families here in central Maine," said one event organizer, Richard Thomas, who lives in the small town of Waterville.
"The railroad lines that run through our downtowns are carrying the same explosives that destroyed Lac-Mégantic,” he told a local newspaper. “We need to do more than simply honor the victims of the train explosion. We need to bring our requests for safer railroads to the president, to our governor and our town managers.”
And David Stember, a regional organizer with the climate group 350.org, said: “Lac-Mégantic is a prime example of a much deeper problem, which is that the rail industry seems to be most concerned about meeting their goals and less concerned about the safety of people in communities and is taking pretty rash risks with the safety of the communities that they travel through.”
Stember's group, alongside with Oil Change International, ForestEthics and others have organized a week of action beginning on Sunday to challenge the oil-by-rail industry. According to the groups:
At a time when the urgency for climate action is at its greatest in history, we cannot fall into the oil industry’s distracting debates on the ‘best methods’ to transport fossil fuels. As our movement has blocked climate-killing pipelines across North America, big oil has moved at an alarming rate to transport oil by rail. Yet despite dozens of oil train disasters, the oil industry is seeking to dramatically expand oil by rail in the US and in Canada.
Lac-Mégantic's struggle is a grim reminder to us all: Big oil will stop at nothing to extract, transport, and burn every drop of oil in the ground. No matter the risk, no matter the cost to public health, safety, and the climate, the oil industry will jump at every opportunity to profit.
As Greenpeace's Stewart argues, the attempt by large oil companies and railway operators to say that moving heavy crude by train is safe or somehow necessary in the context of dimished pipeline capacity puts forward a false choice.
"The real choice," Steward says, "is between clean and dirty energy. Rather than irresponsibly ramping up production in the tar sands, we should be investing in livable cities, great public transit and transitioning to efficient, electric vehicles that together will break our addiction to oil."