Kenmare ND - Upside Down Under

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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Long live Lac-Megantic...

Posted 10/02/18 (Tue)

It’s been more than five years since a train loaded with North Dakota crude oil crashed into downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 and causing the worst rail disaster in Canadian history.

The train was loaded with Bakken crude oil in New Town and on July 6, 2013, sparks from the wheels ignited the cargo, sending “missiles” everywhere, leveling the downtown area of this community, which is the size of Valley City.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy in Lac-Megantic, about 150 miles southeast of Montreal, is that 30 of the 47 people who died, were in their 20s and early 30s enjoying a night out at Le-Musi Cafe, a popular downtown night club.

Aside from that, the environment took a big hit. Outside of town is a namesake lake. Some of the oil that didn’t burn, drained into the lake and some of it still hasn’t been cleaned up. Fish have died off, which destroyed tourism and the drinking water supply was compromised for a time.

Canadian Pacific Railway moved the oil all the way from northwestern North Dakota to Montreal, passing through major metropolitan areas before being handed off to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, that has since gone bankrupt.

Two very important lessons were learned following the explosion. First, the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources repeatedly told the public Bakken crude wasn’t flammable. Simultaneously, the Canadian Transportation and Safety Board research proved that it was and numerous North Dakotans saw the news conference on Canadian TV.

Second, it’s the resiliance of the people of Lac-Megantic. I had the unfortunate opportunity of being an American journalist assigned to this event. Along the way, I corresponded with three people associated with the disaster, one who lost three employees and his business.

• Remi Tremblay is the editor of L’Echo de Frontenac, a weekly newspaper based in Lac-Megantic.

Remi doesn’t speak English, but we have communicated for five years through e-mail  translation of French and English.

L’Echo has continued to produce an edition each week, despite the fire, despite the trauma and Remi’s own reporting of the tragedy has been steadfast.

Remi and I remain good friends and we bounce story ideas off each other occasionally. He was especially interested in the Casselton rail explosion he sometimes calls the “Casselton cocktail.”

• Yannick Gagne doesn’t speak English either but has lived through what most of us would consider seeing the gates of hell.

Yannick owns Le-Musi Cafe, but has now put the pub and restaurant up for sale. He told me in a newspaper interview there was only one thing to do, rebuild the tavern.

So following the loss of three employees in the explosion and the building leveled, Yannick spent $2.4 million to rebuild Le-Musi Cafe and re-opened it to hopefully remove or lessen the magnitude of the psychology of the tragedy.

Occasionally, Le-Musi Cafe staff will post live video on Facebook. It’s clean, it’s modern and you see young people dancing. In his own way, Yannick Gagne brought a sense of normalcy back to downtown Lac-Megantic.

• Bruce Campbell is the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and has been a visiting fellow in the University of Ottawa law school. He speaks English as well as anybody in North Dakota, but sat through a trial in a French courtroom in Sherbrooke, Quebec where three railroad men were accused of negligence in the death of all 47 who lost their lives.

Bruce is writing a book about the Lac-Megantic disaster and fully intends to have references of the community’s unfortunate connection to New Town and Bakken crude oil.

You can’t help but like these people as well as former mayor Colette Roy Laroche. She handled the disaster with poise and professionalism. I doubt many of us could do that.

In 2013, the cargo was labeled incorrectly and since 2015, tougher laws have all but stopped oil train explosions.

Now, the North Dakota Industrial Commission is considering relaxing the laws of removing flammable by products from the crude because oil companies “sometimes struggle to meet the requirements.”

From July 6, 2013 to June 3, 2016, there were 10 derailments in the United States. All carried Bakken crude. Of those 10, eight exploded because of the volatility.