Lac-Megantic mayor presses U.S. for rail safety changes

Colette Roy Laroche will tell a congressional panel that regulatory changes are needed so other town's don't suffer the same fate

WASHINGTON – The mayor of Lac-Megantic, Que., sat beneath a television screen at the U.S. Capitol and watched images of her town engulfed by flames.

It was part of an emotional presentation Tuesday where Colette Roy Laroche, joined by other mayors, urged American politicians to enact train-transport reforms in the hope of avoiding future tragedies like the one in her municipality.

No members of Congress attended the event.

It was organized by a Maine Democrat as a briefing session, and there was hope some lawmakers might be there. The turnout ultimately included a youthful group of about eight congressional staffers, including someone from the office of the Maine congressman who organized the event, Mike Michaud. They came to take notes and asked a few questions.

They heard how 47 people died in last summer’s disaster. How people ran screaming through the streets in the hope of escaping the giant fireballs swallowing their community, following the derailment of an oil-filled train. How there were no injured survivors.

They also heard about the financial burden: a 10th of the town was temporarily unemployed, 50 buildings burned down, and major areas were shut off. Meanwhile, oil seeped into the soil and water, the cleanup and reconstruction costs are astronomical, and the financial responsibility continues to be the subject of lawsuits and occasional federal-provincial wrangling.

“This accident could have happened anywhere,” Roy Laroche told a news conference earlier Tuesday, before heading to Capitol Hill.

“We need to act now — before it’s too late for other communities, other people, other grandparents, other parents, other brothers, other sisters, and other children.”

She was in Washington with a cross-border coalition of mayors from towns situated along rail lines.

During their visit, they also met Monday with the Obama administration’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, and with the Federal Railroad Administration’s Joseph Szabo, then met Tuesday with Canadian ambassador Gary Doer.

The group expressed satisfaction at the response they received during those meetings. They hope the administration goes farther, faster in forcing upgrades to the trains used to transport oil.

But they were met with some skeptical questions from the congressional staffers Tuesday. How would they suggest taking up the cargo load if trains were phased out faster than replacements could get built? And if transporters of dangerous goods were forced to pay into a disaster fund, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed, wouldn’t those costs be passed down?

The mayors replied that the cost of inaction is greater — as evidenced in Lac-Megantic.

They’re asking Congress to consider regulatory changes that would create more scrutiny for small rail lines, but also give them easier access to liability funds in the case of disaster, as well as the U.S. Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing program.

They also want their first-responders to have more information about the cargo passing through their towns, unlike the case of Lac-Megantic where it’s only just become clear how highly flammable its Bakken crude-oil cargo was.

The mayor of one Illinois town suggested things are now backwards — with too little scrutiny of the cargo, and too little access to funding.

Karen Darch, the mayor of Barrington, Ill., said she’s been involved in the issue since a fiery crash of ethanol cargo killed a woman in her area in 2009. She failed to get any action in the years thereafter and then, eventually, the Lac-Megantic disaster occurred.

She said the Quebec tragedy hit home.

The explosive oil-cargo route crossed the border three times, as it transported volatile crude from the northwestern U.S. toward an Irving refinery in New Brunswick, and she said the accident could have happened anywhere — including her own town.

“But for the grace of god,” Darch told a news conference, seated with Roy Lachoche, along with Vicki May Hamm, the mayor of Magog, Que., and Roger Doiron of Richibucto, N.B.

“There are no borders when it comes to rail safety in North America.”

Roy Laroche spoke through one of her own staffers, who translated into English. She sat quietly during the video presentation. She said she wanted U.S. lawmakers to focus on the huge costs of a disaster, which could be mitigated with some spending and better planning.

“What I’d like to remind people of are the costs related to the catastrophe of Lac-Megantic,” she said in an interview, echoing those remarks later on Capitol Hill.

“The cleanup costs, the decontamination, the restoration, the support for a population that is still in distress — that’s still struggling to recover …

“Why not invest in prevention? Instead of trying to repair the unrepairable.”

She said she was pleased by the degree to which Americans seemed aware of her town’s plight.

In fact, research presented this week at a conference on Quebec-U.S. relations by the Wilson Center’s David Biette showed that news coverage of the tragedy in some U.S. media last year was comparable to all other Quebec stories, combined.

Roy Laroche became the public face of the ordeal.

She has become such a well-known figure in Quebec, even admired, that there was speculation she’d be recruited to run in the current provincial election instead of retiring in the next few years as planned.

Roy Laroche explained in an interview, however, how she avoided getting solicited: by making it clear, well in advance, that she had no desire to run for any party.