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2 Years After Lac-Mégantic Disaster, A Focus On Settlement Funds And Rebuilding

Paul Chiasson / AP
Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada July 6, 2013. As the town rebuilds, a judge in Quebec has ruled in a case dealing with a compensation fund for victims."

Last Monday marked the two-year anniversary of the explosion of oil tanker train cars in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that shook many in the region and across the country. The train derailed in the middle of the night, right in the center of the small village, destroying many of the buildings in the town center and taking 47 lives.

Now a judge in Quebec has ruled in a case dealing with a compensation fund for victims.

Vermont Edition spoke to CBC reporter Thomas Daigle for a two-year update:

Jane Lindholm: You were just back in Lac-Mégantic for the two-year anniversary. Can you describe what the town looks like today?

Thomas Daigle: The center of town, which was once the downtown where there were bars restaurants and shops, looks like a construction zone right now. If you drive by it, it looks like something's being built there. There's actually nothing being built. There are piles of gray and ground brown dirt. What is essentially happening is there are still clues two years after the derailment that crews are still decontaminating the soil because of all that oil that seeps from the tanker cars into the soil. That work is still being done and the mayor of Lac-Mégantic says hopefully that will all be done by September, and after that they still hope to reconstruct some buildings in that part of town where it all happened.

JL: So it's just the fact that they were so contaminated that has kept that construction from moving more quickly?

TD: Exactly, the oil that seeped into the ground really spread throughout the former downtown area. So that decontamination work is still ongoing. I should mention that there is another part of town, a new part of town, just a stone's throw from the former downtown that has been built up with new restaurants, new shops and if you go to that part of town the brand new subdivision you wonder what happened here. Of course the reason is that the former downtown was destroyed in that derailment and explosion two years ago.

JL: So what events were held to commemorate the two-year anniversary?  

TD: This year the commemoration with a lot more subdued I would say. Smaller than what happened last year for the one-year anniversary last year. The premier, the governor general were in town. There was a big church mass here in Lac-Mégantic that was shown on big screen outdoors, but this year a lot smaller. The church bells rang 47 times in memory of the 47 victims, and there was a minute of silence for for the victims. I spoke with some of the families of the victims who said that that's all they needed to remember their family members because, you know, you can't forget that for these people the two-year anniversary is just another day. They of course think of this every day of their life now.

JL: Trains are running back through the city, or the town rather. But they're not transporting oil — that's scheduled to start in January. Have any changes been made since the explosion to address rail safety in Canada?

TD: There have been changes. For one, there is a gradual replacement ongoing right now of both in Canada and the United States of the DOT-111, the tanker cars that punctured and exploded in Lac-Mégantic. They are used on both sides. In fact, I should mention that train that derailed, the big oil shipment, had actually come from North Dakota. So when it comes to rail travel, the borders are sort of hard to see when it comes to the U.S. and Canada. But anyway, last year just a few weeks ago, our Federal Transport Minister here in Canada went to Washington, D.C., for a joint announcement with American officials about new thicker tanker cars DOT-117 that are going to be phased in. But again, to get rid of these DOT-111 tanker cars is going to take several years.

JL: And my understanding, at least previous to to very recently, was that all of the rail companies were rolling in these new tanker cars but it was happening fairly slowly, there weren't a lot of regulations that were requiring them to do that right away. Is that still the case?

TD: Right, and there are so also many questions not only about the tanker cars but about the state of the rails. You want to talk about Lac-Mégantic itself — there are a couple of committees, people, the citizens in town, who are voicing concerns about the state of the rails, knowing that oil may be transported on those rails as early as January. Canada's Transportation Safety Board in fact pointed to some locations around Lac-Mégantic, saying the wear on those rails is more than what is acceptable. Yet Central Maine & Quebec Railway, which is the new railway running there, said they're going to invest in those rails and repair them but the citizens are still waiting for that to happen.

JL: So Tom, as I mentioned there was a legal decision just yesterday relating to settlement money for victims of this train derailment. The families of the 47 people who died from the explosion reached a settlement for $431 million, Canadian dollars. But the release of that money has been stalled because the rail company Canadian Pacific hadn't agreed to the settlement and wanted to be released from the group of companies that are actually contributing money to that fund. Canadian Pacific argued that it was not responsible for damages because the cars didn't belong to the company, the tracks were not CP tracks, CP had actually transported the tank cars to Montreal, but then they were handed over to the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway which was responsible for operating the train when it actually derailed. That company, the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway, went bankrupt and doesn't exist anymore. But at any rate, the judge yesterday dismissed Canadian Pacific's challenge to the settlement. So what happens now with that money?  

TD: So there are a couple things that happened now, that as you mentioned $430 million settlement that now is going to be divvied up and not only between the families of the victims, but also the provincial and federal governments who paid for the cleanup and also lawyers who have been hired over the past two years to deal with that with this settlement. So that's two dozen parties that are going to be putting money in that $430 million settlement, and yesterday one of the lawyers representing the families of the victims says this court decision paves the way for us now to sue Canadian Pacific Railway. If CP in the end agrees to put their money into the settlements then that $430 million figure will actually grow, but for the time being it actually looks like that court battle involving CP isn't done yet. The good news, if there is any, for the families of the victims here is that they could see some compensation perhaps as early as this fall.

JL: And for Canadian Pacific, that still remains to be seen what and how much it pays and when, because it still does not want to pay settlement money. It says it's not responsible for this accident. Is that right?

TD: Exactly, and a spokesperson for CP railway told us yesterday they're reviewing the decision. They may appeal, but they're not saying that openly after saying, 'We have no comment for the time being,' but they're widely expected to appeal the decision.

JL: Thomas Daigle is a reporter for the CBC based in Montreal. We've been talking about the two year anniversary of the train derailment in Lac-Megantic. Thomas, thank you very much for speaking with us  

TD: You're welcome, good to talk to you.

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