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How Lac-Mégantic rebuilt after devastating environmental disaster

Danielle Maltais and Mathieu Pépin are interviewed in a podcast episode of Face au Futur / The Future Fix: Solutions for Communities Across Canada.

Published on February 20, 2024

Aerial view of downtown Lac-Megantic

Aerial view of downtown Lac-Mégantic shows solar panels on sports complex and new builds. Photo from Hydro Québec


10 years after the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec experienced a living nightmare, the town is an example of renewal, community engagement and energy transition.


On July 13 at 1:14 AM, a freight train carrying 72 tankers of crude oil derailed and exploded in the centre of town. Six million liters of oil spilled out, caught fire and destroyed the majority of the area. Around 100,000 litres of oil leaked into the local river, and 47 people perished.


Many who lived near the crash site or who lost family and friends have suffered from post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression.


“The Lac-Mégantic tragedy lasted several years because there was the tragedy itself, then there was the destruction of houses that were contaminated, and then people were asked to leave the town centre,” says Danielle Maltais, Professor at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi and director of the Traumatic Events, Mental Health and Resilience Research Chair.


“After that, there was the class action lawsuit, which put a lot of stress on people. Then there were all the discussions about bypassing the town’s train [route] and the trial of the train drivers which increased the stress in the Lac-Mégantic population.”


Maltais clarifies that it’s not just individual mental health impacts but a whole community’s health that is affected and changed by such a tragedy. Not surprisingly, personal values change after a tragedy as big as this.


“We’re going to attach less importance to the [material] things we value or that we accumulate because we know we can lose them in a few moments. And then, on a personal level, we get closer to our friends, to members of our family.”


Maltais was also involved in a study that revealed young people wanted to be more involved in contributing to the rebuild. “They wanted to be listened to more and they wanted to have a committee within the municipality.” The public health department set up a local team made up of people already known in the community to support residents throughout the recovery process.


The new city centre will be a vibrant living environment on a human scale, generating community and economic activities in a green and sustainable setting.


-The office of reconstruction’s articulated vision, translated from French.


Engineer Mathieu Pépin was hired by the town to manage their energy transition project. Widespread community engagement led to the decision to create resilient infrastructure that incorporated natural assets and invest in green energy in a major way.


“There was enormous interest in the community to be consulted on the rebuilding. More than 2,500 people took part in the various consultations over the 15 months that the consultations were held. 2500 people out of 5600. That’s an extremely large and strong turnout. We can be all be proud of that, of having a strong voice, because the people really expressed the major directions we wanted to take, in terms of urban planning, sustainable development, tourism and the place we wanted to create for young people.”


Local Power, Green Power


One of the exciting innovations to come out of the energy transition project was the development of the town’s own micro-grid. Micro-grids are decentralized, local power grids that are can be operated independently of the main electricity grid, which can cover vast geographic areas. That means that even if there is a storm or power outage that disrupts homes, businesses and critical services on the traditional power grid, micro-grids can continue generating and storing electricity locally.


Many power grids also use renewable energy sources. Today, Lac-Mégantic’s completed micro-grid lives downtown and supplies power for the entire town. Incredibly, 1700 solar panels reside on the roof of the new sports complex with another 144 on the fire station.


Energy efficiency devices such as smart thermostats and light bulbs have also been implemented throughout the city and two electric vehicle charging stations have been installed to promote the phasing out of fossil fuels.


Because it is entirely self-sustainable, Lac-Mégantic’s micro-grid is inspiring other communities, drawing attention from within and outside the province including les îles de la Madelaine and even the country of Brazil.


“The energy transition is happening here. Right now. Here’s a concrete example to be proud of,” says Pépin brightly.


“We have a role to play in sharing this knowledge too.”



Listen to the Season 4 episode of Face au Futur / The Future Fix conducted in French: Lac-Mégantic, un modèle de résilience

For community practitioners seeking more information on integrating renewable energy in public spaces, please consult the toolkit Green Energy Solutions published by Evergreen, which also links to the micro-grid project in Lac-Mégantic. Visit Evergreen’s Resource Hub to access more community-based tools and guides.