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Lac-Megantic burning on the first day after the rail car derailment sent fireballs and streams of burning oil coursing through the Quebec village.  (Photo:  Surete du Quebec)
Lac-Megantic burning on the first day after the rail car derailment sent fireballs and streams of burning oil coursing through the Quebec village. (Photo: Surete du Quebec)

In Lac-Megantic, grief and resilience

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Back in July, a massive tanker train filled with petroleum from North Dakota derailed in a tiny town in Quebec.
Explosions and fire ripped through the village, killing 47 people and destroying the downtown of Lac-Megantic.

Brian Mann has been covering the aftermath of that disaster for NPR and North Country Public Radio.

He was in Quebec on assignment again over the weekend. He joined Martha Foley on the line from NCPR's bureau in Saranac Lake.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Martha Foley:  We’re basically two months out now from this devastating accident.  That’s still very soon for a disaster of this size.  What are things like in Lac-Megantic now?  Are there signs of real recovery and rebuilding?

Brian Mann:  I think there are.  The decision has been made to essentially build a new downtown area and when I was there on Friday you could see fleets of trucks bringing in soil for that project – a half-dozen backhoes all digging at once.  Canada’s Federal government and the Provincial government are investing tens of millions of dollars in trying to make sure that there’s real progress on the ground.

MF:  They’re actually building a new downtown?  How come?

BM:  The amount of damage to the old downtown – shops and homes – was really even more devastating than I understood before.  On this trip, I met with Robert Mercier who is head of environmental services for Lac-Megantic.  He showed me a map of how the burning oil from these tanker cars flowed like lava through his community down to the shore of the big lake.

Robert Mercier is head of environment services for Lac-Megantic.  He says the burning oil flowed like lava through his community, destroying homes and sending gouts of flame through the sewer system.  (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Robert Mercier is head of environment services for Lac-Megantic. He says the burning oil flowed like lava through his community, destroying homes and sending gouts of flame through the sewer system. (Photo: Brian Mann)
Robert Mercier: "So the petroleum mostly flew on the ground.  On this side to the lake, so the lake was burning for a big part.  That was something to see.  All the landscape in this area was destroyed because the lava, the petroleum came here.  All this is gone." 

BM:  The big problem going forward, Martha, is that the oil carried with it incredible amounts of contamination – heavy metals, arsenic, lead, copper.  All that soil that used to be people’s gardens and front yards — is now highly toxic.

MF:  Mercier actually took you inside the part of the village that wasn’t destroyed but that’s still been abandoned.  That must have been an eery place to be.

BM:  Yeah.  Horrible, really.  That part of Lac-Megantic looks pretty normal, but it’s a ghost town.  People have been told that they won’t be able to go home and reopen their businesses for as long as fourteen months. 

The problem there is that the oil and contamination spread on the night of the accident through the water and sewer systems.  Mercier stood with me on a neighborhood street, where a tanker truck on Friday was still pumping out oil from deep in the ground.

Mercier:  "They are pumping here so as not to contaminate again.  All these manholes was on fire, big flame here.  I have pictures of all these manholes flaming."

MF:  So everything was on fire – even the water system.  As this long rebuilding process gets underway, how are the people doing? 

During your last visit, you spoke with Guy Boulet who owns a furniture store there – his sister Marie-France was killed.  Did you manage to talk with him again?

We hope nobody forget, you know, because we will need help. We will need help. Fifty percent [of the people here] have a relation with some one dead. It will be hard for the next winter.
BM:  I did.  I met with Guy at his shop on Friday the day before his sister Marie-France’s funeral.  Her service was on Saturday.  He said he and his family were doing okay.  Things are getting better.  He said he was eager for the investigations to be done so that some clear answers are available as to how this happened.  He also told me that he thought the community would need a lot of support getting through this first winter.

Guy Boulet outside his furniture store in Lac-Megantic.  On Friday he and his family were preparing for the funeral of his sister, Marie-France, who died in the July train disaster.  (Photo:  Brian Mann)
Guy Boulet outside his furniture store in Lac-Megantic. On Friday he and his family were preparing for the funeral of his sister, Marie-France, who died in the July train disaster. (Photo: Brian Mann)
Guy Boulet:   "We hope nobody forget, you know, because we will need help.  We will need help.  Fifty percent have a relation with some one dead.  It will be hard for the next winter."

MF:  Brian, you’ll be reporting more on this in the days ahead, but remind us quickly where the investigations stand?

BM:  So far there have been no criminal charges filed.  There are civil cases, targeting the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railroad, which has gone bankrupt, and the oil company involved which allegedly mislabeled the oil aboard these tankers.  There is also new evidence that safety inspectors and environment officials in the US and in Canada had deep concerns about this shipping operation long before the accident occurred.  

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