Residents near Lac-Mégantic fighting new rail relocation that is 'destroying our lives'

Kurt Lucas's property belonged to the family of his wife, Monique Lacroix, for decades but will now likely be expropriated by the federal government. Lacroix, second from right, is pictured in 1980 on their property with her mother, sister, uncle and aunt.  (Submitted by Kurt Lucas - image credit)
Kurt Lucas's property belonged to the family of his wife, Monique Lacroix, for decades but will now likely be expropriated by the federal government. Lacroix, second from right, is pictured in 1980 on their property with her mother, sister, uncle and aunt. (Submitted by Kurt Lucas - image credit)

Kurt Lucas's property in Frontenac, Que. has been in his wife Monique Lacroix's family since the 1970s.

Located five kilometres east of Lac-Mégantic, in the Eastern Townships, it's where they gathered as a family for decades, snowshoeing and skiing on their trails in the winter. It is where his father-in-law died.

But that 125-acre property is about to be expropriated to make way for a new railway track — a project Lucas says would literally cut their property in two.

"It's just a fun place to be but it's not so fun lately," said Lucas, who says he has trouble sleeping because of the stress.

"This is destroying our lives, but nobody talks about that, nobody cares. Again, we've received no support from the municipalities or from Transport Canada at all. So we have to do it ourselves, and it's really tough."

He is one of more than 43 property owners whose land will be expropriated by the government.

Submitted by Kurt Lucas.
Submitted by Kurt Lucas.

This comes nearly 10 years after the Lac-Mégantic train derailment, when a train carrying crude oil crashed into the centre of town on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people.

In the wake of one of the worst rail disasters in Canadian history, the government committed to building a rail bypass system, to shift the rails away from the downtown core.

On Saturday, Federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced the end of the negotiation process toward the purchase of land in Frontenac for the proposed bypass.

As a member of a coalition of 256 locals, Lucas says most property owners still oppose the route, which would not only negatively affect nearly 500 people but also cut farmland in two and, possibly, hurt the region's water supply.

On Feb. 19, the town of Frontenac will hold a referendum, with locals being asked a yes or no question: Do you approve of the project for a new rail bypass on the territory of Frontenac?

Submitted by Kurt Lucas
Submitted by Kurt Lucas

'There's a lot we don't know'

Lucas and his wife bought the property from her family back in 2013, six months before the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.

"We fell in love with it, and that's where we had planned on retiring," said Lucas. "Now we're looking at options — like maybe even completely selling."

The government approached owners in the region, with the intention of buying sections of their properties for the railway. In addition to leasing a section of their family property, the government wants to purchase a 125-metre wide, 143-metre long and 20-metre deep parcel, said Lucas.

Submitted by Kurt Lucas
Submitted by Kurt Lucas

"This is just ridiculous because it's not like at the back of my lot, it's in the middle, and it affects my access," said Lucas.

"I don't know how I'm going to get on the other side if there's no details included in my offer."

Because his property is zoned as agricultural, the compensation would also be minimal, said Lucas.

"I'm getting like $10,000 which is a joke," said Lucas. "If I was zoned white, which is residential, it would be … $50,000 per acre."

He says there is a lot of information missing in the offers from Transport Canada.

Lucas wanted information on how he can be expected to access his property, but also about how to insure his property, the impact of the vibration of the trains and sound pollution.

Without this, he says the residents haven't been able to properly negotiate.

"We can't evaluate the loss of value … That's what's missing. So it's like, I can't negotiate. I don't have this information," said Lucas, adding that water pollution is also a big concern for residents who rely on wells.

"This track is going to be in a trench so it's going to be below the level of my well, but is it far enough that it wouldn't have an impact on it in terms of the quantity or quality? … There's a lot we don't know. Even what they do know is pretty scary."

End of negotiation period came as surprise to locals

The government is offering compensation for two elements, says Frédéric Paré, the lawyer for 22 property owners.

"The first is the value of the land. On that part, we were not that far [from] reaching an agreement. The problem was toward the other point, which are our damages, troubles and [in]conveniences," said Paré.

He notes that his clients felt "kept in the dark" when they found out the negotiation period had come to a close last week particularly since it had been extended three times before.

Martin Bilodeau/Radio-Canada
Martin Bilodeau/Radio-Canada

Rail passes by people whose loved ones died in tragedy

Yolande Boulet-Boulanger's land will be expropriated for the project. She moved into her home located on the border of Frontenac and Lac-Mégantic in 1964.

She lost her grandson, Frédéric Boutin, in the tragedy in 2013. He was 19.

With a muffled sob, she said she still experiences "a lot of misery."

"They chose a pathway that passes by people who knew people who died in the tragedy. I'm not the only one, there are others who are directly impacted and others who are collateral victims," said Boulet-Boulanger.

This is the third time her property has been expropriated.

"It's possible my house will vibrate. [The track] will be so close to the house," said Boulet-Boulanger, who notes that she is most concerned about possible water pollution.

"These are personal problems of mine that impact me, but when I think about the contamination of water, that impacts thousands, thousands and thousands of people."

Submitted by Isabelle Boulanger
Submitted by Isabelle Boulanger

A 'bad idea' from the start

Water pollution is a very real concern, says Joël Chotte, a consulting engineer who analyzed two studies on behalf of the collateral victims' coalition — a feasibility study by a consulting engineering company commissioned by the town of Lac-Mégantic and a hydrogeology study commissioned by Canadian Pacific Railway and Transport Canada.

In addition to the pollution of the forest and destruction of the countryside, Chotte says the rail could pollute the water supply with chemicals and bacteria from the construction.

"It's a typical, classic mistake made by authorities," said Chotte.

"After the crash of the train, authorities said 'okay, we have to do something.' The best idea would be to transfer the train or another way in order to not go through the town. Okay, that's correct but … more and more we saw it was a bad idea. And the authorities refuse to say [so.]"

In an emailed statement a spokesperson for Minister Omar Alghabra said they are committed to the completion of the Lac-Mégantic bypass after ending the negotiations last week, and pointed out that two public consultations were held in 2022.

"Since October 2021, landowners impacted by the land acquisition process have been able to meet with Government of Canada officials at a designated office in downtown Lac-Mégantic. If a landowner wants a meeting they are able to request one," said the statement.

Alghabra's office said it will continue to "be there for the communities."