Feds face difficult decisions in Lac-Mégantic [The Hill Times]

By CHRIS PLECASH
The Hill Times

The federal government will face politically volatile decisions in the months ahead as it works to rebuild a town and address the concerns of many communities situated along the country’s railways.

One of the most difficult challenges the government will face is in determining how to replace the destroyed stretch of track where the July 6 train derailment occurred, levelling Lac-Mégantic’s downtown and claiming the lives of an estimated 50 residents after an unmanned train with 72 cars each carrying about 100,000 litres of crude oil derailed and exploded. By the end of last week the remains of 38 of the town’s residents had been found.

The reconstruction of the line is certain to be a traumatic spectacle for residents of Lac-Mégantic, some of whom are demanding that rail never pass through the town again. While the reconstruction is going to be a painful and contentious decision for residents of the town of 6,000, the original line was vital to the community’s forestry and agriculture industries, and provided an important link to the Maritime provinces and export markets in the U.S. eastern seaboard.

Former Liberal Cabinet minister David Collenette, who served six years as transport minister in the government of Jean Chrétien, told The Hill Times that the federal government would be “a key player” in repairing rail infrastructure in the area.

“Despite what a lot of residents have said about the railway not going through town, the fact is that the line has to be restored quickly for economic reasons,” he said, noting that the community’s own economy relied on the line. “From the federal government’s point of view, and also for the economy of the province and that town, it is very important that the rail line be reconstructed as soon as possible… This is going to be a difficult one to explain to the people in the town.”

In anticipation of the difficult months ahead, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) made significant changes to the Transportation, Infrastructure, and Quebec files when he introduced his new Cabinet on July 15.

Former labour minister Lisa Raitt (Halton, Ont.) has taken over the Transport file from Denis Lebel (Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean, Que.), who will continue to serve as the minister of Infrastructure and Communities. While some observers read the shakeup as a demotion of Mr. Lebel, he also retains the Intergovernmental Affairs file and takes over as regional minister of Quebec from Christian Paradis (Mégantic-L’Érable, Que.). Mr. Paradis, who assumes the marginalized International Development file, will have his hands full in providing support to his constituents in Lac-Mégantic.

Mr. Lebel’s responsibilities will include coordinating federal action with Quebec’s sovereigntist Parti Québécois government, addressing Lac-Mégantic’s infrastructure concerns, and overseeing the region’s economic recovery from the disaster.

Following the swearing-in ceremony for his Cabinet last week, Mr. Harper told media that Mr. Lebel would have a central role in reconstruction efforts in Lac-Mégantic.

“Minister Lebel, as minister responsible for Quebec and the minister of Infrastructure and Communities for Canada, will be very involved in this regard. … He will also be involved in discussions and we have not yet decided the extent of our aid, but the federal government will be there,” Mr. Harper said in French following the ceremony at Rideau Hall.

Whether or not Transport and Infrastructure should be paired under the same file was a discussion during the Chrétien years, said Mr. Collenette. While he thought that the two files should be kept together, he understood the Prime Minister’s reasoning under current circumstances.

“My personal view is that Infrastructure belongs with Transport … the expertise on infrastructure is principally on the transportation side,” said Mr. Collenette, now a senior counsellor specializing in transportation and infrastructure with Hill and Knowlton Strategies. “On the other hand, the infrastructure portfolio is very important, so he’s given it to Mr. Lebel. It takes on even more importance given the issues in Lac-Mégantic.”

Both Ms. Raitt and Mr. Lebel have faced repeated questions about when the federal government will announce financial aid for residents of Lac-Mégantic, but Mr. Collenette said that it would take time to assess the damage and coordinate financial aid with the Quebec government. There are several federal disaster assistance programs that could also be activated, although the programs typically require cost assessments before compensation is made available.

“You can’t come up with a figure so quickly. This just happened two weeks ago,” said Mr. Collenette. “In the weeks ahead, the public servants in Ottawa and Quebec will be working on how much this is going to cost and how much money should be put forward.”

Ms. Raitt and Mr. Paradis were in Lac-Mégantic on July 17 to tour the scene of the accident and pledge support for the community, but did not put a figure on federal aid. Quebec Premier Pauline Marois announced $60-million in emergency aid within days of the tragedy. Another $8-million will be for short-term compensation for residents affected by the disaster, with the remaining funding going towards reconstruction efforts and frontline support.

In addition to the reconstruction of Lac-Mégantic, Ms. Raitt and Mr. Lebel will need to address the concerns of communities situated around railways across the country in the coming months. The issue of rail safety in communities was raised in late June after six rail cars, five of which were carrying diluent to soften oil sands crude for transportation, derailed on a CP railway bridge over Calgary’s Bow River following flooding.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was particularly critical of the current system in which municipalities have no regulatory power over the railways that pass through their communities. Railways fall entirely under federal jurisdiction.

Now the Federation of Canadian Municipalities is speaking out on the current system.

FCM President and Lachine Mayor Claude Dauphin told The Hill Times that railways have been a “big concern” for his organization. Although he wants the federal government to actively engage on rail safety, he added that it was important to await the findings of the Transportation Safety Board’s investigations into the Calgary incident and Lac-Mégantic disaster.

Mr. Dauphin said that some FCM members are calling for an immediate ban on shipping oil in 111A tanker cars like those involved in the Lac-Mégantic derailment.

“That’s the kind of subject we can discuss and it could be regulated right away,” Mr. Dauphin said. “In a case like that, maybe we won’t have to wait for the Transportation Safety Board recommendations.”

The FCM has struck a National-Municipal Rail Safety working group to look at the issue. The group includes representatives from communities around Lac-Mégantic who are seeking improvements to rail safety. Ms. Raitt has agreed to meet with the organization, which represents nearly 2,000 municipalities from across Canada, but a date and location for the meeting have yet to be confirmed.

Mr. Dauphin was not concerned by the recent split of Transport and Infrastructure and Communities. He praised Ms. Raitt’s recent visit to Lac-Mégantic as showing “good faith,” and is optimistic that his organization will continue to work with Mr. Lebel.

“We have a very good relationship with Minister Lebel working with him on the [long-term infrastructure plan] renewal,” he said. “We’ll work even more closely with Mr. Lebel in terms of Quebec, and the same with Minister Raitt on transportation.”