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One year after rail disaster, Lac-Megantic businesses struggle to rebuild

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Volunteer workers covers donated books at the new public library Monday, December 9, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Que. 12 months after a derailment that obliterated part of downtown Lac-Megantic, many local businesspeople are still waiting for financial aid and a chance to kickstart their companies again. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

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Volunteer workers covers donated books at the new public library Monday, December 9, 2013 in Lac-Megantic, Que. 12 months after a derailment that obliterated part of downtown Lac-Megantic, many local businesspeople are still waiting for financial aid and a chance to kickstart their companies again. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

MONTREAL - Claude Charron's most-recent visit to his Lac-Megantic pharmacy called for head lamps, hard hats and masks to block the pervasive stench of petroleum.

A year has passed since his Quebec town was ground zero for a railway disaster, yet the local druggist was only allowed inside his contaminated, shuttered pharmacy last week once authorities had tested the quality of the sometimes-hazardous air.

Such is life for the Lac-Megantic business owner — and he isn't alone.

This weekend the community will pay homage to the 47 victims of the July 6 catastrophe, set off when a tanker train loaded with volatile crude oil crashed and exploded in the heart of town.

But 12 months after a derailment that obliterated part of downtown Lac-Megantic, many local businesspeople are still waiting for financial aid and a chance to kickstart their companies again.

"It's a mess. I had been operating that store for 43 years and, to tell you very, very frankly, I was deeply depressed when I got out of there," Charron said of his pharmacy on the town's main drag, which now sits behind metal fences.

"Almost everything I've owned in all my life is in there."

Following the disaster, Charron moved his operation to a much-smaller location where he's continued to offer prescriptions. However, he says he no longer has enough space to provide a wide selection of products like cosmetics to further boost revenue.

Meanwhile, his downtown Lac-Megantic building that housed his now-off-limits store remains locked up. The doctors, notary and massage therapist who rented a dozen office spaces from him are gone and so is that additional income.

Charron said he's been unable to make a full insurance claim because his building, only metres outside the blast site, suffered little physical damage.

He expects his property to be a write-off even after decontamination work has been completed, though he has yet to receive any of the millions promised by the provincial government to buy downtown buildings.

More than two dozen businesses penned in downtown — including the grocery store, a shoe shop and a fast-food joint — face the same obstacles, Charron said.

The office of the local provincial legislature member said the change in government a few months ago caused delays in delivering compensation, as the incoming Liberal party re-evaluates promises made by its Parti Quebecois predecessors.

In the meantime, Ghislain Bolduc's office has felt the pressure from the frustrated business community, his press attache said.

"I hear them every day," Veronique Lachance said of business owners' concerns.

"I understand that they might find this long, but at the same time it's hard to find this much money in a context where we don't have money, in the context where the debt and Quebec's debt is still remarkable."

Charron said he believes it's also time for the federal government to step in and compensate business owners. He blames federal regulators for the crash because they allowed the railway to cut corners on safety, such as operating the train with only a single engineer.

"I wouldn't sleep well if I was a part of the federal government, knowing that they put so many lives in danger," Charron said.

"We need help and the government has to put in the money because they have to feel responsible for it, especially the federal government."

Ottawa has pledged $35 million to help rebuild local infrastructure and to assist the town's economy. The federal government has also committed up to $95 million to split decontamination costs with the province.

Looking to the future, Lac-Megantic Mayor Colette Roy Laroche said she's called on Ottawa to help the town deal with another major challenge: preventing oil-filled trains from ever rolling through the traumatized community again.

Laroche said in a recent interview that she has personally asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Transport Minister Lisa Raitt to help pay for the railroad to be re-routed around the community, a position echoed by many people in the town of 6,000.

Until a bypass is built, she wants Ottawa to ensure oil-by-rail traffic is steered away from Lac-Megantic on alternative routes.

"We indicated to the government our very big concerns about the transport of dangerous materials on our territory," she said in an interview last month at Lac-Megantic's sports complex.

"Mr. Harper is well aware of this. On several occasions, I met with the minister, Ms. Raitt, and this demand was repeated. . . .

"To (Harper) himself, we expressed the wish to have a bypass route and to avoid the transport of oil, but what will the result be?"

Asked for comment about Roy Laroche's concerns, Raitt's office replied that rail service along the tracks is part of a deal between the railway's new operator and the municipality.

"It would not be appropriate for Transport Canada to speculate on the actions of the new owner," said a brief email sent by Jana Regimbal, Raitt's press secretary.

The American company that bought the assets of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which declared bankruptcy after the derailment, recently struck an agreement with the town by promising not to transport dangerous goods through Lac-Megantic until at least Jan. 1, 2016.

That firm, Fortress Investment Group, has agreed to share the costs of a feasibility study to examine the bypass proposal with Quebec, Ottawa and Lac-Megantic. In the meantime, the renamed Central Maine and Quebec Railway says it will invest $10 million to repair its Canadian stretch of tracks.

The estimated cost of moving the railroad outside Lac-Megantic's downtown has ranged from $50 million to $175 million, a hefty bill the province and Ottawa would most likely have to help pay.

Even with the big price tag, the people of Lac-Megantic — a town built around the railroad — are making plans for life without the rails.

The railway doesn't appear in the blueprints for downtown Lac-Megantic's reconstruction, a proposal drawn from ideas raised at public workshops.

"This was a clear message that has been mentioned by the majority of people," said urban planner Marc Perreault, who worked on the plans unveiled last month.

Work on the downtown area's rebirth, expected to include space for commercial, park, hotel and affordable-housing space, will begin once the massive decontamination efforts have ended. The cleanup is expected to wrap up in December.

Charron has plans to relocate his franchise to a new building under construction in the town's north end by January. But that wouldn't solve his dilemma with his former downtown location, which he's visited a half-dozen times since the disaster.

He went to the site last week with a couple of his employees to salvage shelves for the new store.

For now, Charron will have to continue asking for permission two days in advance of any visits to his old pharmacy, so authorities can ensure the air quality is safe enough for him to enter.

"Twice we were refused access to it because there was contamination in the store," said the veteran druggist, who added that more help is needed to combat what he describes as low morale and fear in the town.

"I'm a pharmacist and I see so many customers who are afraid to sleep, who are afraid to stay along the tracks now because of what happened last year. We need some change."

Follow @AndyBlatchford on Twitter

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