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Coroner closes file on last Lac-Megantic victims as Canada looks to future of rail transport

It’s been less than a year since the Lac-Megantic rail disaster, but the fiery train wreck that took 47 lives and incinerated the centre of a picturesque Quebec town seems to already be receding from  memory.

We’re left with process stories about the push to strengthen regulations for carrying volatile types of crude oil in rail tank cars. There’s the lingering concern that dangerous goods must still be taken through population centres because rerouting them would be costly and inefficient.

But the disaster itself has been consigned to history, except of course for those who lost family, friends and property when an unattended train loaded with explosive Bakken crude derailed July 6. Tank cars cracked open like eggs and the ensuing inferno killed dozens of Lac-Megantic residents.

The incident was little more than a footnote in the recent Quebec election, as Quebec writer Nora Loreto observed this week in a post on rabble.ca.

“[Premier Pauline] Marois stopped in Lac-Mégantic twice during the campaign,” she wrote, noting Marois hoped (vainly, it turned out) to wrest the riding from the Liberals. “Rather than talking about what actually caused the disaster, she promised to help the town rebuild its business core.”

Marois had committed her now-defeated Parti Quebecois government to spending $16.2 million to build a new shopping district in the scorched town of 6,000, the Montreal Gazette noted.

Marois also called on Ottawa to foot the bill to shift the rail line around Lac-Megantic, the Toronto Star reported.

“Railways are their responsibility, so it will be up to them to assume the costs incurred if we are to go ahead with the rerouting” said Marois during a March campaign stop.

The mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche, stayed on the sidelines during the campaign.

The story of Lac-Megantic turned a page Wednesday when the Quebec coroner’s office closed the file on identifying the remains of seven of the victims.

The identity of the 40th victim, 30-year-old Jimmy Sirois, was made using microscopic bone fragments and DNA samples, the Gazette reported.

The coroner’s office posted a list on its web site of the victims who were positively identified and the seven whose remains were not recovered but who’ve been declared legally dead. Most range in age from 57 to 77 but they include a nine-year-old girl. The youngest victim of the disaster was four, the oldest 93.

According to QMI Agency, work identifying the victims was done by forensic experts in Montreal and the United States.

“This work consisted primarily of analyzing fragments and human remains that had been highly altered by the intensity of the fire to which they were exposed, making it impossible to identify all the people who died in the fire,” coroner’s spokeswoman Genevieve Guilbault said.

The coroner’s news release said victim remains now would be released and discussions were underway with relatives and the local parish priest as to when and how they would be returned.

Findings from the coroner’s investigation will be made public when it’s completed, the agency said.

The disaster has spawned a class-action lawsuit on behalf of survivors and relatives of those who died, naming now-defunct railway operator Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the company’s president, the engineer who left the train parked on a siding above the town while he took a rest break and the federal government, among others.

While scar tissue forms over the wound left by Lac-Megantic, the railways tell us we can expect more crashes in future.

“You can mitigate the risk, but you can’t eliminate the risk,” Keith Creel, CP Rail’s chief operating officer, told reporters an appearance before a Commons committee last week, according to the Sault Star.

The committee has been looking into the shipment of dangerous goods since the disaster.

Rail executives also say there’s no alternative but to route hazardous goods through Canadian cities.

“When we can route traffic with a view to minimize risk, we do so,” CN Rail chief executive officer Claude Mongeau told the Globe and Mail last week.

“But the reality is, if you look at a map, all of our business goes through Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. These are just the larger population centres. The smaller population centres, it’s the same. The country was built around the railroads and that’s just the hard reality.”

(Photo via the Canadian Press

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