Industry & Transportation
Mitigation & Prevention
Quebec town votes no to Lac Megantic rail bypass project
By Morgan Lowrie
The proposed rail bypass around the Quebec town where a freight train derailment killed 47 people nearly 10 years ago hit another snag this week when residents of a neighbouring town voted overwhelmingly against the project.
The municipality of Frontenac – where some residents are facing having their land expropriated – confirmed that 92.5 per cent of nearly 700 eligible residents opposed the Lac-Megantic bypass project in a referendum held Sunday.
Frontenac Mayor Gaby Gendron said his town’s residents feel the federal government has brushed aside their concerns over the rail bypass, which he said could cut some landowners’ territory in half and destroy large swaths of wetlands.
Given the results, “it’s absolutely certain the municipal council will oppose the project by all possible and legal means,” Gendron said in a phone interview Monday.
In 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then-Quebec premier Philippe Couillard announced joint funding for a project to divert trains around the heart of Lac-Megantic, which was devastated after an unattended freight train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded on July 6, 2013.
But five years after Trudeau promised trains would be leaving Lac-Megantic’s downtown for good, construction has not started and the project is drawing increasingly vocal pushback from residents of nearby towns who are unhappy with the proposed route.
During the consultation process, people in Frontenac raised concerns over the environmental consequences of the bypass, as well as the safety implications of having trains roaring by near their homes.
Gendron said many people are worried about the potential impact of construction on wells and the water table, and the government hasn’t provided satisfactory answers to ease those fears. He said his town was in favour of another route – one that would have gone around Frontenac and caused less disruption – but the government didn’t consider it.
Nantes, another neighbouring municipality, also passed a resolution in January opposing the bypass route, in response to a survey and petition by concerned citizens.
Last week, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced he had made the “difficult decision” to move forward on expropriating land after the failure of negotiations to purchase the needed properties. A spokesperson for Alghabra said Monday the minister is aware of the referendum results but remains fully committed to the bypass.
Nadine Ramadan said in an email that the 2013 tragedy has marked the history of Quebec and Canada. “The completion of the Lac-Megantic bypass remains a priority for our government,” she said. The minister will “continue to be present at every stage to support” affected communities, she added.
It’s unclear exactly what impact the Frontenac referendum will have on the process, and Gendron said he’ll meet with council to discuss future steps. But he noted that anyone can contest the notices of intent to expropriate sent out by the federal government, which should trigger a public hearing. He suggested Canadians who care about their tax dollars should watch closely.
“The federal government will take a billion dollars in public funds to build a 12.5-kilometre bypass that it will give back to the Canadian Pacific (Railway) with a red ribbon,” he said.
Robert Bellefleur, a spokesman for a Lac-Megantic citizens’ committee for rail safety, said the results of the Frontenac referendum aren’t surprising, given the vocal opposition to the project. He believes the referendum results could lead to further delays in construction – a situation he describes as “deplorable.”
However, he believes the disagreements stem from affected towns feeling that they weren’t sufficiently consulted about the bypass route and weren’t heard when they proposed modifications to reduce the impact. Residents of neighbouring towns, he believes, are open to a bypass, “but not one done in any which way across their territory.”
The entire process has led him to wonder: “are they (the government) doing this for the population, or are they doing it for Canadian Pacific?”
Julie Morin, the mayor of Lac-Megantic, said her town council does not wish to interfere in other towns’ choices.
“The fact remains that for the population of Lac-Megantic, the need for the construction of the railway bypass remains, both for the safety of citizens and for social recovery,” she wrote in a statement.
Morin said that while it is “impossible” to reach total consensus on such a large project, she urged the federal government to put in place as many mitigation measures as possible to minimize the impact of the bypass on citizens from all the affected towns.
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