‘We lost part of our soul’ in oil train disaster, mayor of Quebec town says

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 11, 2014 

— The mayor of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people died in a massive inferno following a train derailment last summer, came to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to push lawmakers and regulators for rail safety improvements.

Colette Roy-Laroche, whose picturesque lakeside town became the scene of one of the worst rail accidents in decades, was joined by a group of mayors from Canada and the U.S. All were united by the concern that the rail lines in their towns have become pipelines for a North American energy renaissance, and bear the risks that come with it.

The federal government regulates rail safety, but the group told lawmakers and regulators that local governments are the ones that pay the ultimate price in a disaster.

“It’s the mayors, like me, who end up living with the life-shattering consequences of such a terrible tragedy,” Roy-Laroche said in prepared remarks translated from French.

In addition to the massive number of fatalities, Lac-Megantic has to rebuild its destroyed town center, a process that’s already cost $400 million. About 50 buildings burned down, Roy-Laroche said, and “a river of burning oil” seeped into sewers and basements.

The fire burned with such intensity that it rendered many of the surviving homes and businesses uninhabitable. The remains of five of the 47 victims have not been found.

“We lost a part of our soul,” Roy-Laroche said, “but we’re strong and we’re going to try to make it through.”

The July 6 derailment forced the U.S. and Canadian governments to confront safety problems that have surfaced as a surge of oil production in North Dakota’s Bakken shale region has taken to the rails.

North Dakota is producing 1 million barrels of oil a day, and the bulk of it is moving on trains. However, it’s moving largely in a fleet of tank cars that federal safety officials have long warned could puncture or rupture easily in derailments. Regulators in both countries have also concluded that Bakken crude oil is more flammable than conventional kinds.

The Department of Transportation is writing new standards for tank car construction, but that could take another year.

On Monday, the mayors met with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, acting Deputy Transportation Secretary Victor Mendez and the heads of both the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

“They were very receptive to what we had to say,” said Karen Darch, the village president of Barrington, Ill., who’s a vocal advocate for rail safety improvements.

The Senate and House of Representatives have held hearings in the past couple of weeks, though lawmakers didn’t hear testimony from local officials.

“Our perspective is one that needs to be there,” Darch said.

The Department of Transportation, working with the railroad industry, has instituted voluntary safety measures that involve train speeds, track inspections and hazardous material routing. But the mayors and other safety advocates said they were looking for swift, decisive action from regulators.

“It’s great if it gets done on a voluntary basis, but we know that’s not enough,” said Vicki May Hamm, the mayor of Magog, Quebec.

The mayors said none of their towns could afford the emergency response capabilities needed for disasters. They also can’t shoulder the cost of cleanup. Rebuilding Lac-Megantic will cost more than $1 billion, according to estimates, and so far Canadian taxpayers are footing the bill, not the companies that produce, transport or refine the oil.

The mayors described the Lac-Megantic derailment as a “perfect storm” of human, mechanical and chemical factors. However, subsequent fiery accidents in Alabama, North Dakota and New Brunswick have shown that it could happen again in other communities.

“What happened in Lac-Megantic can happen anywhere in both countries,” said Roger Doiron, the mayor of Richibucto, New Brunswick.

Email: ctate@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @tatecurtis

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