The proposed rail bypass across the Quebec town where a freight train derailment killed 47 people nearly 10 years ago hit one other 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-Mégantic 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 outcomes, “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 center of Lac-Mégantic, 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 could be leaving Lac-Mégantic’s downtown for good, construction has not began and the project is drawing increasingly vocal pushback from residents of nearby towns who’re unhappy with the proposed route.
Throughout the consultation process, people in Frontenac raised concerns over the environmental consequences of the bypass, in addition to the security implications of getting trains roaring by near their homes.
Gendron said many individuals are anxious in regards to the potential impact of construction on wells and the water table, and the federal government hasn’t provided satisfactory answers to ease those fears. He said his town was in favour of one other route — one that might have gone around Frontenac and caused less disruption — but the federal government didn’t consider it.
Nantes, one other neighbouring municipality, also passed a resolution in January opposing the bypass route, in response to a survey and petition by concerned residents.
Last week, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced he had made the “difficult decision” to maneuver forward on expropriating land after the failure of negotiations to buy the needed properties. A spokesperson for Alghabra said Monday the minister is aware of the referendum results but stays 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-Mégantic bypass stays a priority for our government,” she said. The minister will “proceed to be present at every stage to support” affected communities, she added.
It’s unclear exactly what impact the Frontenac referendum could have on the method, and Gendron said he’ll meet with council to debate 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 construct a 12.5-kilometre bypass that it can give back to the Canadian Pacific (Railway) with a red ribbon,” he said.
Robert Bellefleur, a spokesman for a Lac-Mégantic residents’ committee for rail safety, said the outcomes of the Frontenac referendum aren’t surprising, given the vocal opposition to the project. He believes the referendum results may lead to further delays in construction — a situation he describes as “deplorable.”
Nonetheless, he believes the disagreements stem from affected towns feeling that they weren’t sufficiently consulted in regards to the bypass route and weren’t heard after they proposed modifications to scale back 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 complete process has led him to wonder: “are they (the federal government) doing this for the population, or are they doing it for Canadian Pacific?”
Julie Morin, the mayor of Lac-Mégantic, said her town council doesn’t want to interfere in other towns’ decisions.
“The actual fact stays that for the population of Lac-Mégantic, the necessity for the development of the railway bypass stays, each for the security of residents and for social recovery,” she wrote in a press release.
Morin said that while it’s “not possible” to succeed in total consensus on such a big project, she urged the federal government to place in place as many mitigation measures as possible to reduce the impact of the bypass on residents from all of the affected towns.
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