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Ottawa urged to increase funds for Lac-Mégantic cleanup

Lac-Mégantic, Que., Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche will take part in a briefing for U.S. lawmakers on North American rail safety on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The federal-provincial battle over what Ottawa should pay to cover the cost of last summer's train disaster in Lac-Mégantic is far from over, Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois says.

The next phase of the reconstruction involves building a new railway line to bypass the community at an estimated cost of about $175-million. Ms. Marois said the federal government has full jurisdiction over railway transportation and should pay the complete cost.

"They have a duty to fulfill their responsibilities," Ms. Marois said while campaigning in the riding of Mégantic about 35 kilometres from Lac-Mégantic. "They have jurisdiction over railroad safety and it will be up to Ottawa to pay what it will cost."

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Ms. Marois's comments come as the mayor of Lac-Mégantic is in Washington with a group of Canadian and U.S. mayors calling for changes on shipping crude oil by rail. Colette Roy-Laroche said on Tuesday that action is needed before an accident like the one that devastated her community occurs elsewhere.

The group met with federal regulators on Monday and held a briefing intended for congressional members on Tuesday afternoon.

At a press conference at the Canadian Embassy on Tuesday, Ms. Roy-Laroche said the rapid increase in the number of trains carrying crude oil in North America should make the issue a priority for governments on both sides of the border.

"It is truly urgent that action be taken before another tragedy occurs," she said.

Ottawa and Quebec reached an agreement last month to cover the costs of rebuilding and cleaning up the town's business district, which was levelled when a runaway train loaded with crude oil jumped the tracks and exploded, killing 47 people.

Ottawa refused to cover the full cost, and the two governments agreed to a 50-50 split with no maximum on the final amount.

Ms. Marois said rather than be dragged into a long battle over who pays for what, it was better to accept an unsatisfactory deal.

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"Remember that Ottawa didn't want to pay anything because it wasn't considered a natural catastrophe. … But I didn't want to deprive the residents of Lac-Mégantic of assistance given the tragedy they experienced," she said.

The federal minister responsible for economic development in Quebec, Denis Lebel, rejected Ms. Marois's criticism.

"Ever since this tragedy we have always been there for the residents of Lac-Mégantic," he said in an e-mail. He noted that Ottawa has made $155-million available to the community, including $95-million for decontamination costs, $35-million for the local economy and $25-million to help pay for emergency response teams. Mr. Lebel, who is Minister of Infrastructure, Communities and Intergovernmental Affairs, said he has no intention of getting involved in the provincial campaign or a confrontation with the PQ.

The PQ leader said she has no regrets about "opening the valves" to allow funds to flow into the town. But as the community enters a new phase of its reconstruction, Ms. Marois said she will demand that Ottawa pay more.

The Quebec vote on April 7 could be an opportunity for residents to express their concerns over Ottawa's handling of the tragedy. Mégantic is represented by a Liberal at the provincial level and a Conservative, Christian Paradis, in Ottawa. Ms. Marois picked the popular director-general of the local Chamber of Commerce, Isabelle Hallé, to run for the PQ.

Ms. Marois's handling of the disaster was viewed as the first step on the road to boosting the PQ's approval rating before the election. A PQ victory in the riding could be a warning to the federal Conservatives, who can ill afford to lose seats in the province.

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The two governments have not yet estimated the total cost of the disaster. It is expected to go on for years and cost several million dollars more in government aid.

On Tuesday, Ms. Marois said that if elected, she will substantially boost funding to promote tourism in the province especially in outlying regions, where tourist dollars play a major role in the local economy.

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About the Authors
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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