Estimated 6.5 Million Litres of Crude Oil Spilled at Lac-Mégantic, Cleanup To Take Months, Cost Millions

As the death toll of the tragic Lac-Mégantic derailment rises to 28, with another 22 presumed dead, the environmental impact of the crude oil spilled during the disaster is also becoming clearer. Further risk of environmental damage comes from the one million litres of crude oil still trapped in tankers at the blast site, according to the Montreal Gazette.

Aaron Derfel writes for the Gazette, that "cleanup crews must wait to begin the months-long decontamination — which is projected to cost tens of millions of dollars — because a police investigation and a coroner's search for human remains must first be completed."

Derfel reports Ghislain Bolduc, a member of the National Assembly for Mégantic riding, as saying that though the investigation must take top priority, "each day's delay in decontaminating the four-hectare site means that oil will continue seeping into the ground and sewage system, which will almost certainly have to be rebuilt."

CBC News reports that the investigation itself will "take months or more" to ensure "Canadians get the answers they need," according to Transportation Safety Board chair Wendy Tavos.

Bolduc emphasized the urgency of removing the five intact rail cars still in the town centre, each containing 100,000 litres of crude oil. This is in addition to residual oil in the damaged cars, which "altogether probably contain about 500,000 litres."

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company gave Environment Quebec an estimate of 6.5 million litres of crude oil burned or spilled from damaged tanker cars in the hours following the derailment, with much of it "[flooding] the basements of more than 50 buildings and houses in the downtown core."

In comparison, the 2013 ExxonMobil pipeline oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, spilled an estimated 893,000 litres of crude oil, while the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill totalled about 41.6 million litres of crude.

The oil also leaked into the sewer system and burned there, causing "underground explosions [that] cracked sewage pipes and blew manhole covers, with geysers of flames shooting up 10 metres in the air," according to Bolduc.

The oil is not just in the water and the soil either, as "above-ground explosions sprayed oil droplets thousands of feet into the sky, and the wind carried that oily mist as far as eight kilometres from the derailment," with Lac-Mégantic residents reporting oil coating their cars.

The Chaudière River has also been contaminated, with "extensive oil slicks" seen on its surface as far as 80 kilometres away, in the town of St. Georges, northeast of Lac-Mégantic. SIMEC, a private company specializing in removing oil spills, was hired on Tuesday to place booms "designed to contain the oil and to prevent it from polluting shorelines" on the river, 1.5 km from the blast site.

"400,000 litres of oil have been pumped out of the sewers thus far," and "4 million litres of oil-tainted river and lake water, as well as sewage" recovered, Michel Rousseau, deputy Environment Quebec minister, told the Gazette. Rousseau added that the cleanup will "cost a lot of money" because "the quantity of oil is very, very big," and that Montreal, Maine & Atlantic will have to pay for most of the bill.

Derfel writes that "decontaminating thousands of tonnes of oily earth" in Lac-Mégantic will "take months and cost millions of dollars," whether done by excavating and replacing 30,000 truckloads of earth from the town or on-site by "setting up a temporary facility to clean the oily earth and then refill the site." This task would be followed by repairing of the sewer system–removing or replacing damaged and contaminated pipes, and "extensive repairs" to the town's sewage treatment plant, which is "clogged with oil as well." The town's water supply, which comes from reservoirs and wells, escaped damage.

"To repair all this, to rebuild the town centre and return to normal will take years," said Bolduc. Rousseau confirmed that soil decontamination could take months, though he couldn't provide an exact number.

Premier Pauline Marois has pledged $60 million in emergency aid to Lac-Mégantic. Bolduc says that this is "a good start," but warns that "millions more are needed, including from the federal government."

Image Credit: Transportation Safety Board

Indrapramit Das is a freelance writer, critic and artist. His work has appeared in Slant Magazine, Vancouver Weekly, Strange Horizons…

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