Rebuilding from scratch meant the Quebec community could become more sustainable than ever
On July 5, 2013, a train hauling seventy-two tankers of crude oil from North Dakota to New Brunswick stopped for the night in Nantes, Quebec. The engineer followed standard practice by parking downhill—twelve kilometres from Lac-Mégantic, a town in the southeastern part of the province—and activating the hand brakes and air brakes, before calling the rail traffic controller to discuss a mechanical issue that had come up throughout the trip: the lead locomotive’s smokestack was giving out excessive smoke. They expected the issue to settle and planned to check in the next morning, but after the engineer left, a 911 call reported a fire on board. Firefighters on the scene turned off the train’s electrical breakers, cutting the air supply from the compressor to the air brakes, even after the fire was out. Just before 1 a.m., the train started rolling downhill, speeding up to over 100 kilometres per hour and heading straight for Lac-Mégantic. At 1:15, the train derailed and detonated. The blast vaporized most of the town’s centre, killing forty-seven people.
In the weeks that followed, local firefighters searching through the rubble risked finding the bodies of people they knew, recalls Denis Godin, the fire department’s then captain. “Our job was to assess the spills, secure the area, check for ongoing danger, and to reassure people—our role was to ensure public safety,” he says. “I didn’t want them finding people they were close to.
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Reinforcements came from at least 135 departments across the province and some even from the United States. After the peak of the crisis was past and aid had packed up, Lac-Mégantic remained defaced: forty buildings in the heart of its historic boomtown-style core were destroyed and, in the years that followed, several others were deemed to be at risk and needed to be demolished. Streets once lined with nineteenth-century buildings were razed, 57,000 square metres burned to the ground.
Decontamination alone took around three years as workers excavated 2.2 hectares of damaged terrain, brought in clean landfill, and remediated riverbanks, as well as repaired a bridge and rebuilt sewers, aqueducts, and streets. Oil was everywhere. According to Karine Dubé, the municipality’s communications officer, flaming oil made its way to the lake the town is named for, eventually burning itself out. The greatest water contamination was in the Chaudière River, since the explosion happened at its mouth, and pollution from petroleum hydrocarbons travelled all the way to Lévis, 175 kilometres away. Three years later, fish in the Chaudière basin were still showing signs of contamination and physical anomalies like lesions and tumours.
The town received millions of dollars in donations from municipalities, private organizations, institutions, and individuals. Weeks after the accident, the federal and provincial governments announced they would contribute a total of $120 million for rescue and evacuation efforts, safety services, dangerous materials removal, and eventual reconstruction. Questions arose about how to use the reconstruction money and what rebuilding might look like. One gift, from the electric vehicle accessories company Roulez Électrique, foretold a direction to come: charging stations for electric cars.
Ten years after 6 million litres of leaked oil made Lac-Mégantic one of the worst terrestrial spills in North American history, the town has become a testing ground—and a model—for green urban innovation and design. As then mayor Colette Roy-Laroche famously said shortly after the disaster: “An exceptional tragedy deserves exceptional reconstruction.”
Trains first chugged through the Estrie region of southern Quebec in the 1870s and, in 1895, through what became the town of Lac-Mégantic. A community grew around the busy crossroads of two sets of tracks that connected the town to others popping up along the rail lines. This was only a few years before local parish priest Joseph-Eugène Choquette—affectionately called the electrical priest—brought electricity to the town on Christmas Eve 1898, long before the province-owned Hydro-Québec centralized electricity use in 1944. Today the company produces the vast majority of the province’s electricity, with municipalities across Quebec, including Lac-Mégantic, hooked up to the main grid.
Around twenty years ago, Hydro-Québec started searching for solutions to make the province’s communities that produce the most pollution more sustainable. Over 99 percent of the company’s energy is renewable, the bulk of it coming from dams like Daniel-Johnson in the Côte-Nord region. At 214 metres tall and nearly a kilometre and a half long, and constructed using 2.2 million cubic metres of concrete, it is the tallest dam of its kind in the world. Dams come with obvious consequences for ecosystems: increased greenhouse gas emissions from inundating forests and peatlands, habitat disruption from flooding, and altered food supply due to water temperature changes. All of these often decimate the practices of Indigenous peoples living alongside the natural elements.
There are twenty-two communities in Quebec—mainly Indigenous ones in the northern region of the province—that can’t be connected to the main hydro-powered grid and instead use diesel generators. These communities produce greenhouse gas emissions disproportionate to their populations, putting pressure on Hydro-Québec to provide wind- and solar-powered alternatives. “Solutions need to be slightly different in the North. We often think, okay, if we have twenty-four hours of sunshine a day for six months and can significantly reduce diesel consumption during that time, those are savings for Hydro that also reduce GHGs,” says Patrick Martineau, one of Hydro-Québec’s engineers. “But then there are periods without much sun at all.” Martineau has spent the past five years working with Lac-Mégantic to build the town a microgrid independent of the wider provincial network, one that can also be used as a prototype elsewhere. “The project was a real-life validation of the technology developed in our research lab,” he says. “Now we are seeing what works and can be deployed more easily into more isolated communities.”
Inaugurated on July 6, 2021, eight years after the railway accident, the microgrid is the first of its kind in the province. It includes 2,200 solar panels installed on the roofs of downtown buildings and connected to thirty residential, commercial, and municipal buildings—with enough battery storage to power one average Canadian household for about three weeks.
For a town like Lac-Mégantic, with 6,000 residents, the project was never designed to be fully self-sustaining. Mathieu Pépin, an engineer living in Quebec City at the time of the train disaster, returned to his hometown of Lac-Mégantic to become its energy transition project manager. He sees these ambitious and futuristic projects differently. “It is symbolic to move away from fossil fuels for people here who were damaged by an oil spill,” he says. “Also, we’re in a climate crisis: what better time to rebuild in a smart way. We want to show we’re leaders, we can be reborn. We want to lead by example but also show others what is possible to do in building a smart city.”
Rebuilding the downtown from scratch meant that the city planners, architects, and engineers involved in the project could take the biggest step possible toward sustainability: not only constructing the microgrid but also rebuilding streets on an axis with the lake to maximize airflow, constructing wider bike paths lined with trees, installing rainwater management, and prioritizing environmental education initiatives. Though they designed for a greener future, not everyone was on board with the modern aesthetics, as they meant such a significant break with history. “Architects wanted to mark their era in step with contemporary styles—which they’ve always done. Time will tell if it looks good,” says Pépin. Though the style is new, some former building blocks remain. At the Espace Mémoire public square built on the site of the Musi-Café that disappeared in the blaze, architects integrated decontaminated rocks from the former downtown—memories of a recent past.
Since the tragedy, another project is in the works: to reroute the train tracks so they circumvent both the downtown core and the daily lives of residents. Once an integral part of the landscape, the train has become a sight that many can’t bear. The mere idea of this changed course has advantages. According to a study about mental health since the tragedy, the 2018 announcement that the train tracks would be rerouted to the outskirts of the town ameliorated post-traumatic stress, which had earlier affected 72 percent of adult residents, for many. But this project has also divided people: namely, those who would see their own landscapes marred by the change of course. Surrounding communities, such as the towns of Nantes and Frontenac, have expressed concerns over environmental impacts, like new construction affecting groundwater or the fact that the proposed route would go through wetlands and forested areas. The municipalities also worry about the loss of tax revenue, with agricultural land being repurposed for railways. Hearings for residents opposing the expropriations were held in spring this year, but the project remains on the table.
“Opportunity” is a loaded word for many people in Lac-Mégantic, says Pépin. You can’t call an accident that left the majority of residents with varying levels of post-traumatic stress anything but devastating. But locals, the municipality, and the company powering people’s daily lives have decided the only way to move forward is to embrace transformations that can have benefits beyond the town’s borders. Tragedy isn’t the only motivator for large-scale change. If the new systems pop up like beacons in remote landscapes, it will send a signal to centralized energy producers. Towns can look to Lac-Mégantic’s rebirth as an example of how communities can modify their future relationship to power. “We see ourselves like a living laboratory. To experiment, to welcome people—that’s the future,” Pépin says. “Don’t forget that we rebuilt for the community and not for the town.”
The 180 solar panels adorning the roof of Lac-Mégantic’s new fire station—the first in the province to be so equipped—are a matter of growing pride. The facility, connected to the microgrid, has become a symbol. “Firefighters return [to the town] with their families or come to see what we’ve done,” says Dubé. “They always stop by the station because it was at the heart of the effort.” Though a plan for a new fire station had been in the works before the train disaster, the fire hall was shaped by the accident: the station was built in the centre of town, on a street that didn’t exist before.
Caitlin Stall-Paquet is a Montreal-based writer whose work has appeared in the CBC, Elle Canada, the Globe and Mail, enRoute, The Narwhal, and BESIDE.
Jarred Briggs (jarredbriggs.com) is an illustrator based in New Brunswick. He has drawn for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.