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The "red zone" in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec. NCPR File Photo: Brian Mann
The "red zone" in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec. NCPR File Photo: Brian Mann

Clean-up, controversy follow Lac-Megantic disaster

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The criminal investigation continues in eastern Canada, three weeks after a train disaster that police now say killed 47 people.

An unmanned train full of oil rolled free, derailed and then exploded in the heart of Lac-Megantic, a small rural town about three hours east of Montreal.

Civil lawsuits are already being filed here in the US - and there's a fight brewing over who will pay for the massive cleanup.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

It's too early to state any charges, because we're still at the start of the investigation and of course we still have a lot of things to look at before dropping accusation.
On Thursday, Quebec's provincial police raided a regional office of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway located in Farnam, 120 miles from Lac-Megantic.

Police spokesman Benoit Richard declined to give details about that operation and said no charges have been filed against anyone involved in the accident.

"It's too early to state any charges, because we're still at the start of the investigation and of course we still have a lot of things to look at before dropping accusation."

Richard says five bodies are still unaccounted for in the ruins of downtown Lac-Megantic. But he says the so-called "red zone" is safer now, allowing cleanup and recovery crews to operate more freely.

"The main thing was benzene and as we are speaking right now, there are no traces in the areas where we are working that could possibly put our workers in hazard."

As the investigation continues, the families of the victims have begun filing lawsuits in US courts.

Peter Flowers, the Chicago attorney representing one of the families, didn't return phone calls for this story.

But Flowers told the Canadian Press wire service that he expects between 15 and 20 civil suits to be filed in the coming days.

"We'll be asking for millions of dollars for every one of these folks," Flowers said.

The lawsuit names the railway operators, but also targets the designers and builders of the tanker cars that erupted in Lac-Megantic on July 6.

Unattended rail cars on a track above Lac-Megantic in the days following the disaster. NCPR File Photo: Brian Mann
Unattended rail cars on a track above Lac-Megantic in the days following the disaster. NCPR File Photo: Brian Mann
Meanwhile, earlier this week, Canada's Federal transport agency issued new emergency rules requiring railroads to tighten safety measures.

They'll be adding additional personnel to trains carrying dangerous cargos and requiring that companies improve their break systems for parked trains.

David Jeans heads a citizens group called Transport Action Canada that lobbies for tighter regulation of the country's transport industry.

In an interview with CTV television, he said Canada's government needed to move quickly.

"The death toll in this accident was horrific. The economic impact on Lac-Megantic was very severe and I think that it's right that Parliament should be looking into these issues – and particularly the element of secrecy that has surrounded the rules that railways follow in operating their trains through communities."

Communities across Canada have demanded more disclosure of the kinds of cargos rolling through their downtowns.

As investigations and reforms move forward, people in Lac-Megantic are still trying to sort out what happens next.

"We don't know exactly what will happen with our town."

Gilles Charest runs a home decorating store in Lac-Megantic, which sits just a couple of blocks outside the blast area. Even before the disaster, the economy in his village was struggling.

"Maybe a lot of stores that were in the middle of this situation, will they rebuild? Will they go away? Will they build somewhere else? We don't know exactly."

One major complication, according to local authorities, is that the American railway company at the center of this disaster – the Maine, Montreal and Atlantic – has stopped paying for the cleanup operations.

Lac-Megantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche claimed this week that her town has been forced to pick up the tab for more than 4 million dollars of work that's already been done.

Despite repeated messages left at the railway's headquarters in Illinois and Maine, company officials declined to comment.

Video: Paul McCartney dedicates a song to Lac-Megantic survivors this week in Quebec City.

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