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Remembering Lac-Mégantic Before the Blast

Keith Race, a Quebecker with ties to Lac-Mégantic, on revisiting the Quebec town that is still in recovery mode after a train derailment and oil spill led to a fire that killed 47 people last year.
May 29, 2014, 6:20am

A graveyard roughly one kilometer north west of the contamination zone. There were several graves buried in 2013, though none made mention of the train derailment. From the graveyard the blast zone wasn't visible though a faint smell of oil floated on the spring breeze. All photos via the author.
Unleashed by the train crash, flaming bitumen oil spread into every fissure, every crack. Waves of fire flowed through the streets and people, who just minutes before were carelessly enjoying a quiet summer night. They had no escape. The residents of Lac-Mégantic were trapped, even if they hadn’t realized it yet. Some ran toward the lake thinking the water would quench the fire, that if only they could make it, they would be saved. But the oil spill had already ignited the surface of the lake and it burned with the same intensity as the scene they sought to escape. The oil had found its way into the sewers and down into the rainwater drainage pipes that split off in a V-like shape, and empty directly into the lake. The burning oil spread out across the water’s surface, the heat so intense it cracked rocks on the shoreline. Millions of liters were spilled from the 72 derailed oil tankers, most of it burned off in the ensuing inferno but hundreds of thousands of litres flowed freely and coated the streets, lake, and river. Those who didn’t die instantly in the explosion were trapped; behind them was the blast zone inferno of the derailed oil-cars and before them a lake of flames like an ocean of napalm.

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It was a dark topic for dinner conversation, but after a sort of guided tour led by my uncle in his truck, all our minds were firmly fixed on the events of nine months earlier. My uncle, Claude Turcotte, lives in a house just outside the evacuation zone. He’s been there forever—at least it seems that way to me. I played in that backyard as a small child. I ran carefree across that same grass. In the winter I stacked mounds of snow to defend against snowball fusillade launched by my siblings. It wasn’t until the town was wracked by disaster that I even realized I had fond memories of the place.

It never seemed to change. It was a fixed point in time and history to me. I couldn’t imagine anything capable of reshaping Lac-Mégantic. It would always be the same bucolic Quebecois town, sandwiched between lake and forest, and similar to so many of the small villages and hamlets all across Canada. It had a tranquility that removed it from the world and I took it for granted. I think a lot of us did.

The town was too small and idyllic. Like so many towns in Canada, it was a safe place for young families and for the retired. It was part of the tacit Canadian promise, a fate secured from the contingency of life. A place outside the existential threat of war, famine, anarchy, and destruction. There are no drones flying overhead, no marauding juntas or fundamentalist terrorism. The water is clean and so is the air. Sure, life can never be guaranteed, but Lac-Mégantic was as close as you could get.

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Two people stand at the edge of the quarantine zone on what is left of Rue Frontenac. The train derailed to the left of this picture and the fire and oil spread to the lake at the right. Forty buildings were destroyed in the blast and ensuing fire and more than 500,000 tons of oil contaminated dirt had to be removed.
On the night of the train wreck, Claude was safely beyond the reach of the spilling oil and spreading inferno. But Lac-Mégantic is small—so all of the townspeople lost a friend or family member in that fire. Some lost a lot more than just one. Claude told me about a cab driver who left his home, his wife, and his children to drive a fare. He’d done that a hundred times before. But while he was away, the oil tank cars were barreling downhill—gliding down iron rails. The train drove directly into the heart of the town. He never saw his family again.

While I surveyed the blast zone I imagined the 40 buildings that once stood. Two and three-storey low-rises with ground floor businesses and apartments above flanked the road’s sides. Downtown Lac-Mégantic is mostly centred around Rue Frontenac, one long straight road that, if you’re standing by the railroad tracks, leads into a grassy hill and tree line. Now it was mostly loose dirt, peppered with stacks of shattered cement and random debris. Only the train tracks were left, dividing the crater into off-kilter hemispheres of destruction. It’s poetic in a way; the town’s centre was destroyed, but the train tracks remain.

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It felt like walking through a fetid scab; the area was cleaned up, but it was nowhere near healed. Loose, oil-reeking mud was surrounded by 12-foot fences. A small guard post stood in the road that cut through the middle of the disaster zone. That road used to be lined with buildings, businesses, and homes. Now it’s barren. There are soot murals painted on brick walls—walls that have been freshly exposed to air and sunshine after their neighbours fell to the fire. The dirt had barely settled around parts of the railroad. Mud grabbed at my boots as I made my way towards the blast’s epicentre. I’d bet that after a good day of rain, I would sink right to my calves in that sludge. Even after removing the contaminated soil, something that totaled around 126,000 cubic metres of dirt, the air was redolent of oil. Every breath carried faint flavours of car tires and dirtied rags. It wasn’t oppressive but it wasn’t escapable either, even the spring breeze was slicked with oil.

The damage remains, but the (irr)responsible rail company, Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), has since vanished. MMA filed for bankruptcy protection on August 9, 2013 to protect its creditors and less than a year later the company was sold. The railway is now named Central Main and Quebec Railway and is owned by Railroad Acquisition Holdings, LLC, a subsidiary of Fortress Investment Group, LLC. The sale of MMA’s American assets has already been solidified and its Canadian assets are expected to follow shortly. The new railway company intends to resume oil shipments in 18 months, and they tried to soothe anxiety over the announcement with a promise to invest $10 million into improving rail safety.

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The railroad tracks' location remains unchanged from its original path. The dirt beneath has been replaced and a locomotive with a long line of railcars travels at a snail's pace over ground zero.
The new owners promise a host of improvements, including the abolition of single-man crews, which has been widely reported to be a key factor in the train’s derailment. At this point I’m not even sure what I want to see happen. It would be nice to see Ed Burkhardt—the man in charge of MMA when that train exploded—chased through the streets along with the board of directors from the defunct MMA railway, but it wouldn’t solve anything. No lives will be brought back through scapegoating or mob retribution. There’s a pang of impotence and futility when I think about what should be done. Oil transport by railway has exponentially increased in recent years, and volcanic derailments have followed suit. When nothing substantial changes in the face of a failure as great as this—if in the moment of crisis we still can’t change our direction—what hope is there?

On my walk back to my uncle’s I stopped by the cemetery. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe I wanted to find the graves of the 47 who died in the fire or maybe I was just feeling morbid after walking through a disaster zone. I found a couple fresh graves but none of them made mention of the train derailment. I guess once you’re buried it doesn’t really matter why. It was a quiet space—clean and presentable—but haunted, and surprisingly similar to the fenced-off wreckage of downtown Lac-Mégantic. Tombstones were decorated with flowers and pillowy clouds hung in the sky above. I was just a short distance from ground zero, but the wreckage was completely gone from sight. It was like it didn’t exist, save for the faint taste of oil in the air. Life moves on, and though the clean up will stretch on for years to come, it’s not as if all of Lac-Mégantic was erased in a fireball.

The loss of Lac-Mégantic, and the spills that continue to crop up around Canada, are a heavy price to pay as the tar sands continue to ship oil. Oil is an old technology, and the pollution from it is killing our planet. Over and over again we commit ourselves to a product that is leading us to doom. We’re captured by comfort and counseled against change—without the oil sands Canada’s economy would lose an estimated $2.1 trillion in “economic benefits,” according to Deloitte, over the next 25 years.

While government officials love to tout GDP increases as evidence of the benefits the tar sands offer, a significant chunk of that will go to cleaning up environmental disasters like Lac-Megantic. And while hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent to remove the toxic mess, no amount of GDP can ever return Lac-Mégantic to what it once was: an idyllic, peaceful town like so many in rural Canada. Even if the town is physically rebuilt, the emotional scars of its residents and nightmarish memories of that horrible night in July remain, leaving yet another casualty in our seemingly unending thirst for oil.