Photo: Michael Lee-Murphy

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Oil and gas flow throughout the Canadian economy like blood through the body, powering the industries which depend on those resources. The blood of oil is pumped through the body of the country by the veins of pipelines, shipping routes, railways and trucking routes.

Sometimes these veins tear, and the blood spills.

In the middle of the night on Friday in the eastern Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, one such vein tore in the worst possible way.

Roughly 300,000 barrels of oil are processed through the Irving Oil Company’s refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. Some of that oil exploded this weekend after a train carrying it to New Brunswick hurtled down the hill into Lac-Mégantic from nearby Nantes, destroying much of the centre of this small tourist town near the Maine border.

Thirteen people are dead. Sixty are missing. Almost 48 hours after the explosion, the fire is still smoldering. The body count is likely to rise, once the bodies can be located. Speculation is rife here that there may be no bodies left to recover once the fire is quelled.

The train carrying crude oil to New Brunswick “got loose,” according to the company, after being secured for the night in Nantes about 7 miles away from downtown Lac-Mégantic. The train’s conductor, the company said, set the brakes on the train down for the night before going to bed. It remains unclear how the train came unstuck.

The town’s mostly elderly faithful Catholics crossed the Chaudière River for Sunday morning mass. The gospel was about hospitality, and opening one’s heart to strangers. The homily asked parishioners to pray for the displaced, and the dead. The hills and central squares in this part of towns in this part of Quebec near the Maine border are dotted with light-up crosses and church steeples are the highest point in many towns. For Fr. Steve Lemay, delivering his homily at the Church of St-Jean-Vianney, the cross is a reminder that they are not alone in their suffering.

Along Rue Laval, the main commercial strip leading into the centre of the town, car dealerships have become triage sites for the displaced in assessing whether or not they can return to their homes. Locals congregate in parking lots hugging, crying, and laughing in equal measure. Fast-food joints have become makeshift media centres for the journalists who have flooded the town.

There is no potable water in town, and the water in the Chaudière River as far as two kilometers away from Lac-Mégantic is slick with oil. Tanker after tanker filled with water roar up and down the main street of the town.

Roughly 300,000 barrels of oil are processed through the Irving Oil Company’s refinery in New Brunswick. The oil comes from all over Canada, and some from the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and Montana, reportedly where the oil coming through Lac-Mégantic originated.

Production from the Bakken oil patch has exploded in the past several years. In 2013, the Bakken oil patch produced around as much as 727,000 barrels of oil every day, massively up from the 360,000 produced per day in July of 2011. Oil from North Dakota’s Bakken is a relatively new phenomenon for the East Coast, and the oil is spreading everywhere. As no pipeline yet exists, governments up and down the East Coast are building infrastructure in order to purchase the oil. Until the appearance of Bakken oil on the scene, East Coast refineries had been suffering from the rising price of imported Brent oil, primarily from Nigeria. Political unrest has forced up the price of Brent crude oil, at the same time as the relatively cheap Bakken oil has come on the scene, and the rush is on. The use of Bakken crude oil by East Coast refineries has tripled since 2009 in what industry analysts are calling the U.S. oil boom. There is currently a waiting list of 9 months for oil refineries to get space for crude oil on freight trains like the one that sent a fireball 200 hundred feet into the Lac-Mégantic night this weekend.  

While the Bakken oil patch has provided a boon for East Coast oil refineries like the Irving Oil refinery in New Brunswick, the company that operates the crude oil freight railway has been cutting back on costs.

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railroad, which owns the railroad that runs through Lac-Mégantic, in 2010 cut the number of workers it employs to man its trains in half. The company said it would save $4.5 million in costs by using remote controls and cutting its crew members from two conductors down to one. The move drew criticism from train conductors and railway engineers.

A somewhat combative press release from the company on Sunday said that, contrary to reports the company had been unavailable since the explosion, a dozen MM&A representatives are currently on site, “with more arriving continuously.”

The statement from the company goes on to say that the “governmental investigation of the accident’s [sic] cause has largely prevented MMA from completing its own investigation.”

The same railway line that has destroyed much of the town’s historic downtown was the reason for that town’s construction. Lac-Mégantic was founded in the 1880s after the Canadian Pacific Railroad finished the construction of its transcontinental railroad here, and is one of the largest towns along the railroad between Sherbrooke, QC and destinations in Maine. A description of the history of the Canadian Pacific railway on its website reads that the railway was built to “unite Canada and Canadians.”

Harper, who has been one of the chief pumpers of oil through the veins of the Canadian body politic, was on hand briefly to tour the damage. He left quickly after a short press conference, during which he declined to discuss either the details of the investigation or the details of federal financial compensation for this town of 6,000.

Back at the church of Saint Jean Vianney Sunday evening, an evening  prayer service drew about 60 people for an hour of silent prayer. The silence was broken periodically by the Church’s lone choir singer, accompanied by a single acoustic guitar. “Jesus, you suffer with us,” he sang.

The fire now largely extinguished and the Transportation Safety Board will soon begin its investigation into the causes of the accident. With the death toll widely expected to mount in Lac-Mégantic over the next few days, the issue of oil and the dangers of its transportation will likely not enter the debate in any major way. But oil flows through this country like blood, and the people of Lac-Mégantic now know it as well as anyone.

Michael Lee-Murphy is a freelance journalist who splits his time between Quebec, New England, and the north of Ireland. He is enthusiastic about local journalism and was previously an editor at the McGill Daily for two years. You can follow him on Twitter

Photo: Michael Lee-Murphy