A year ago, Colette Roy-Laroche was on her way out, finished with politics and planning a quiet retirement with her husband. The mayor’s biggest public hurdle, it seemed, was cajoling neighbouring municipalities to chip in for a posh new recreational centre near downtown Lac-Mégantic. Such a small problem, it turned out.
She was thrust into the centre of a maelstrom on July 6, 2013, when a train carrying 72 carloads of volatile crude oil derailed and exploded in the centre of Lac-Mégantic’s quaint downtown, killing 47 people. The tragedy captured the country’s attention, as politicians from Quebec City and Ottawa rushed to Ms. Roy-Laroche’s side and residents looked for guidance from the cautious and soft-spoken woman they later nicknamed the Granite Lady.
One year later, the diminutive mayor who still insists she’s “not a politician” has become a spokeswoman for her town and for other Quebec municipalities, travelling to Ottawa and Washington to lobby for stronger rail regulations. And she’s emerged with a steely resolve to persuade the federal government to build a new bypass that would allow dangerous goods – including crude oil – to be diverted around the disaster-struck community.
Speaking with The Globe and Mail in June, Ms. Roy-Laroche said she has received no guarantee that a feasibility study for a bypass, launched earlier this year, will result in the construction of the new track. But she said Lac-Mégantic’s residents, who are still struggling to rebuild one year after the accident, aren’t going to take no for an answer.
“If they’re conducting a feasibility study thinking that in a couple years we’re going to forget, they’re wrong. We are going to maintain our demands and constantly remind them,” Ms. Roy-Laroche said. “… There’s no one here who would say that we’ll forget this one day. It’s impossible. No one can forget.”
She said the placement of the tracks is a safety issue in the community due to the mountainous terrain around Lac-Mégantic and the tight quarters in the turn-of-the-century core. “There are questions about dealing with [the] discomfort of trains and also allowing for healing,” she said. “But it’s much more than that. It’s a question of security.”
The $2.5-million feasibility study announced in Quebec’s June budget should help determine who will help pay for the new track, she said. The costs could be shared between Ottawa, the province and the owners of the new Central Maine and Quebec Railway. The full cost of the bypass has been estimated anywhere from $50-million to $175-million.
“We have to see which partners will contribute,” Ms. Roy-Laroche said. “The railway is the federal government’s responsibility. So the federal government has to contribute. The provincial government can also contribute. And also the railway company – we will see to what level they can or want to engage.”
The mayor said it’s possible that trains could return to the town carrying crude oil as early as January, 2016. Earlier this year, the town struck a deal with CM&Q, which took over the operations of the defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. The agreement delays the transportation of all dangerous goods until the company fixes the tracks. After that, dangerous goods – with the exception of crude oil – can return, but they must move through the town at slower speeds.
If a bypass isn’t ready by 2016, there will be nothing to stop the company from carrying crude oil through the downtown again.
Ms. Roy-Laroche, who was due to retire last year, said dealing with the fallout of the accident has been challenging – both on a personal and a political level. The train’s whistle has become an uncomfortable reminder of the tragedy, and she says she’s still deeply affected when she runs into the families of those who died.
“At each step since the catastrophe there are powerful moments that force us to deal with the fragility of the citizens and their fears, their despair, their impatience. It’s difficult. From the beginning it was difficult,” she said. Then, she added, “There’s no release.”
While working around-the-clock in the weeks following the disaster, Ms. Roy-Laroche was largely mum on her own losses. The mayor’s son was supposed to be at the Musi-Café the night of the accident – as many as 30 of the 47 who died were at the popular venue – but he stayed home that evening and survived. Two of the mayor’s cousins died in the blast.
While she deals with the emotional weight of her losses and those of the town, Ms. Roy-Laroche will likely face her biggest challenge steering the town’s economic recovery. She told The Globe that she sees a real potential for attracting more tourists to the forested region of Eastern Quebec, but acknowledged that will require a quick rebuilding. She says she’s certain most of Lac-Mégantic’s destroyed businesses will be relocated within the next two years.
“I’m not really worried about what will happen in 10 years,” she said when asked about the town’s long-term viability. “What worries me are the transition years between that first day we can start to build downtown again and the day we’ve finished rebuilding. So far the rebuilding isn’t happening fast enough.”