Skip to main content

Clean up continues on the crash scene Friday, July 26, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Que. A memorial service for the victims of the July 6 train derailment that killed an estimated 47 people will be held Saturday.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

As many as 115 businesses are finalizing plans to move to a future commercial district near the heart of Lac-Mégantic, as the removal of the toxic soup under the shattered downtown is expected to last years.

Nearly a month after the devastating crash of an oil train on July 6, officials have warned that reconstruction could take five years and will only proceed after the contaminated soil beneath downtown is carted away and treated, leaving an open pit. Some residents worry downtown will never be rebuilt.

The explosions and fires that followed the derailment consumed 40 buildings, over an area of about six blocks, but another 160 property owners have been put on alert that their homes and businesses could be expropriated.

On the night of the crash, a train belonging to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway careened into town, spilling 5.6-million litres of light crude. Sewers filled with the oil and exploded. While many of the homes and businesses look untouched on the surface, the ground beneath them is hazardous and many buildings will require demolition.

"The ground is like coffee grinds and the oil is percolating through the soil," explained Jean-Claude Morin, the head of the cleanup effort. So far, none of the contaminated ground has been removed.

With few places left to gather, the conversation around the tables at Lac-Mégantic's only Tim Hortons stays boisterous from dawn to dusk. But discussions on the future of the village's ruined downtown brings hushes and whispers. Since a town meeting in mid-July, little news has come forward about the reconstruction, feeding worry. An official in Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche's office said on Friday that it was still too early to comment on plans. A local official confirmed that many options are on the table, including turning the area into a memorial park.

"I can't divulge what we are planning because of the public panic it might cause," warned Pascal Halle, the head of the local chamber of commerce.

While he says it is "too soon" to discuss whether downtown will be rebuilt or not, Mr. Halle says the new business hub should be completed within two years. He won't comment on where the district will be housed or how permanent its infrastructure will be.

What remains of downtown Lac-Mégantic is in stark contrast to the sprawl surrounding it. The main street is lined with brick buildings dating from the village's founding as a Canadian Pacific rail town. Painstakingly restored in recent years, the area now seems likely to face the wrecking ball.

Evacuated engineering firms and accountants are now housed in trailers parked alongside the town's main street, a temporary solution Mr. Halle is looking to fix.

Nearly 115 businesses were located within the Red Zone surrounding the crash site; the number fluctuates as the boundary shifts. As of Sunday, 69 had moved to temporary locations.

At the town meeting on July 16, the head of the local regional municipality, Maurice Bernier, commented for the first time on the scope of the cleanup effort. According to Mr. Bernier, the 200 families and businesses evacuated due to the crash would be offered plots of land on the edge of town, as well as money for their lost properties.

Gilles Bergeron, a retired local civil engineer, said the offer from the municipality is indicative of the scope of reconstruction being foreseen.

"If they are going to dig down metres to remove contaminated soil, they won't be able to build on top of the fill added later," said Mr. Bergeron, explaining that the ground could shift for years afterwards as it settles.

Foundations for new buildings downtown would need to be anchored beneath the excavated soil, requiring much deeper and more expensive construction.

Rachel Longpré watched from her house, only 30 feet from the railway track, as exploding oil cars smashed her salon and café on July 6. The next day she began planning to rebuild her business in her house.

"In four years – in however many years it takes to rebuild – I'll be the first to volunteer to move back downtown," Ms. Longpré said. "But I need to rebuild somewhere now, I can't wait for years."