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It's been more than three months since an American oil train derailed and exploded in eastern Quebec, killing 47 people. The massive blast destroyed much of the downtown. Local leaders in Lac-Megantic now say the clean up and recovery effort will be far more costly, and far more challenging, than once believed. Industry experts say the accident could change the way oil and dangerous chemicals are transported on trains in the U.S. and Canada. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Robert Mercier, head of Lac-Megantic's environment department, walks down his town's Main Street. He grew up here. And in a normal year, he says, this block would've been busy with street cafes and tourist shops. Leaf peepers come to see the fall color. Now it's a ghost town.
ROBERT MERCIER: It's been - left for weeks. Everybody quit so fast.
MANN: People fled early the morning of July 6th, as massive fireballs rolled into the sky. Mercier says he was sleeping in an apartment nearby when the first tank car erupted.
MERCIER: We just didn't know what it was - volcano, meteorite, or what is that? When you don't know, you're just afraid. You just run. You run.
MANN: Three months later, a cleanup crew is still pumping spilled crude oil and chemicals from the ground underneath what used to be a gorgeous lakefront street. As we walk, we see people loading computers, mementos and furniture on the U-Haul trucks. It turns out this is the last day for locals to retrieve their personal possessions before the whole area is cordoned off for at least a year. Parts of the city were flattened by the blast, but cleanup crews have discovered that much of the rest of Lac-Megantic's downtown is saturated with heavy metals - lead, arsenic, copper - as well as that thick crude oil.
Back in his office, Mercier spreads a map on his desk, showing me the vast scope of the cleanup.
MERCIER: So the petroleum mostly flew on the ground, on this side to the lake. The lake was burning for a big part.
MANN: The lake was on fire?
MERCIER: That was something to see, you know? You can see here, all the landscape in this area is destroyed. All these houses are gone now. Nothing there, nothing there.
MANN: A 10-minute drive away, a fleet of huge trucks and backhoes is laying the foundation for an entirely new downtown. That's how bad things are here. Officials have decided that a new business district is needed to replace what's been destroyed or contaminated. A hundred and 20 million Canadian dollars have been pledged for that effort, but no one is sure what the final price tag will be. And the province of Quebec and Canada's national government are feuding now over how much to spend and who should pay.
Caught up in this turmoil are people like Guy Boulet, who runs a furniture store just outside the contaminated zone. NPR first spoke with Boulet back in July, right after the disaster, when he learned that his sister, Marie-France, died in the firestorm.
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GUY BOULET: She owned a small business right in the middle of the downtown. Sometime it boils inside.
MANN: Weeks later, Boulet sits behind the counter in his shop. He looks exhausted. Marie-France's remains have never been recovered from the wreckage. After a long day spent making deliveries, trying to get his life back to normal, Boulet's family is finally preparing for his sister's remembrance.
BOULET: It's a simple ceremony right at the church. She was a really good person.
MANN: Boulet says people here are resigned to the idea that the healing process will take a long, long time.
BOULET: We have to be really patient because nobody know exactly how long it will be. We hope nobody forget, you know, because we will need help. We need help.
MANN: Adding to the pain and frustration is the fact that a growing number of experts and government officials in the U.S. and Canada say that there were plenty of warning signs long before this disaster struck. Robert Mercier, Lac-Megantic's environment officer, says his office tried to raise questions about the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railroad and its growing shipments of hazardous oil and chemicals.
MERCIER: We were very worried about the conditions of the rails all around. We were talking about that many times.
MANN: You knew it was a concern.
MERCIER: It was a great concern about the trains and the condition of the rails and all these tanks that was passing every day.
MANN: Since July, investigators in the U.S. and Canada have focused on a wide range of red flags - from the condition of the tracks, to the staffing level of these big industrial trains, to new evidence that the hazardous chemicals aboard the Lac-Megantic train were mislabeled. But much of the scrutiny has fallen on the type of freight car that erupted that day - those big, sausage-shaped tank cars known in the industry as DOT-111As.
LLOYD BURTON: It's rigid. It's prone to derailment. And when it derails because of the coupling designs, they are prone to puncture.
MANN: Lloyd Burton is a professor at the University of Colorado who studies rail transport of hazardous materials. It turns out, DOT-111As make up two-thirds of the tank cars used in the U.S. and Canada. They're kind of the workhorse of the rail industry. Thousands of them roll through towns and cities across America every day. And Burton says they're carrying more and more volatile crude oil and chemicals produced by North America's booming energy industry.
BURTON: The most dangerous crude, the highest sulfur crude, the most explosive and most flammable materials are now being carried in tank cars. And they're being carried in tank cars that are simply not equal to the task.
MANN: For decades, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has been issuing strongly worded reports about the safety of these very same DOT-111As, calling them inadequate for carrying dangerous products. Despite those warnings, the rail industry has resisted replacing its tank car fleet. Newer double-hulled cars are expensive and railroad executives have argued that freight trains overall have a strong safety record.
But speaking last month, the CEO of one of North America's biggest railroads signaled a major shift. Speaking on the Business News Network, Hunter Harrison, head of Canadian Pacific, said the disaster in Lac-Megantic had changed the debate over DOT-111As.
HUNTER HARRISON: Well, I think they'll be phased out as far as dangerous commodities. We're much more, rightfully so, sensitive about the environment today than we were when these cars were built. Shame on us as society.
MANN: Experts say phasing out DOT-111As in North America would take at least five years. Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched a new rule-making process that could determine once and for all whether the industry will be forced to replace its tank car fleet. That review is now on hold because of the government shutdown in Washington.
MANN: For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.
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