by Suzanne Weiss
On the July 6 anniversary of the Lac Megantic rail disaster, the pointless death of 47 residents was commemorated by moving ceremonies in dozens of communities across the continent. The actions had a common theme: Keep the Oil Off the Rails and in the Ground!
Community activists across North America, along with ForestEthics, 350.org, Oil Change International and the Sierra Club, held events during July 5 to July 13 to honour the victims.
In Lac Megantic, more than 1,000 people marched in solemn silence after observing a moment of silence at 1:15 a.m. ,the moment on July 6, 2013, when the train laden with fracked Bakken oil derailed and exploded in a series of catastrophic fireballs leaving deep emotional scars and physical damage which remain on the local landscape.
Following the march, about 1,200 people packed Ste-Agnes Church, where Mayor Colette Roy Laroche recalled, “For several minutes we tried to convince ourselves that it wasn’t true. But what happened to us was a nightmare. When we removed our hands from our eyes, the horror was still there, and the worst was to come.”
Parish priest Steve Lemay told the service that it has been a difficult year and he urged the politicians present to continue to provide support for the community. “We still need help to rebuild our town and protect our environment,” he said.
In Toronto July 6, about 50 activists gathered by the rails running through a residential community on Bartlett Avenue. Reg McQuaid, a community activist who lives only a few blocks from the tracks, spoke to the gathering:
“It is sobering to think that those same unsafe rail cars that exploded in Lac Megantic only hours earlier were passing along these very rails in front of us, past our homes, shopping centres and businesses, beside or over the streets where we daily walk, cycle or drive.”
“When we raise our concerns to the rail companies and to federal regulators, they assure us that, given all the precautions they take, it is ‘extremely unlikely’ that any such derailment would occur,” McQuaid said. However, everyone concedes that the possibility of a derailment can indeed occur.
McQuaid pointed to the GE-Hatachi nuclear fuel processing plant a half a mile from where we stood and reminded us that “About twice a week, mile-long trains of highly explosive Bakken crude pass within a few metres of this plant. If the ‘extremely unlikely’ possibility of a derailment of highly explosive cargo transported in unsafe cars should occur there, the resultant disaster and destruction would be severely complicated by the presence of radioactive material in the plant.”
A speaker from 350.org, Stuart Basden reminded us that rail lines run through the hearts of our communities right across Canada, “and the amount of oil they carry is skyrocketing, rising from 500 carloads per years in 2009 to 500 carloads per day by the end of 2013.”
Basden emphasized that regardless of the dozens of oil train disaster, the oil industry seeks to expand oil by rails in the U.S. and Canada, while removing legal safety requirements.
Confirming the recent announcement of newly appointed Canadian Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt, Basden said that knowledge of the transport of hazardous material by rail through urban areas is not to be our concern, despite the disquiet of residents and the municipal government.
Gerry Dunn, facilitator at Stop Line 9 Toronto and initiator of the event, called out the names and age of the 47 victims as a candle was lit for each and placed near the rails. Concluding his remarks, he referred to the alternative of a municipal campaign designed to force City Council to ban from Toronto “unconventional crude oil” produced from tar sands or by fracking. Such a campaign “is based on ‘prevention’ not ‘risk reduction,’” he said. “No safety measures can prevent a disaster. If we don’t want the consequences, we must prevent the activity.”
“Put up a lawn sign and start a conversation,” Dunn said. “Talk with your neighbours and friends, and then a take a group of them to talk to your Councillor…. The residents of Lac Megantic have paid a terrible price to warn us of the danger we all face. We can honour their memory by never letting it happen again!”
The speakers voiced the sentiments of the activists present in saying: No more tar sands; no more fracking. No more oil by rail. No more destruction to our climate. Let the oil stay in the ground.
The ceremony was closed by the Raging Grannies who sang popular tunes to new words, whose bite and satire reflect our concerns and hard work for a safer world.