The investigation into the causes of a fatal blast at a propane company north of Montreal could be long and complex, police said Tuesday after three bodies were found at the site.
Officials are dealing with a “vast” scene complicated by snow, hazardous materials and objects that were projected far from the scene, provincial police spokeswoman Éloïse Cossette said.
“It’s a very large scene with piles of debris, so we need to be very careful,” Cossette said.
Police announced late Monday they had found the remains of three people missing since last Thursday’s explosion at Propane Lafortune, in St-Roch-de-l’Achigan, Que., about 50 kilometres north of Montreal. The remains are believed to belong to workers associated with the company, and they have been taken to a lab to be formally identified.
The local fire department received calls Thursday morning about an explosion and fire at Propane Lafortune, but the risk of further explosions forced firefighters to retreat. They were only able to bring the blaze under control in the evening.
The propane company later said the missing people included two employees and a subcontractor.
Five days after the explosion, investigators were “still looking for answers” about what caused the blast, Cossette said. She said there were several types of fuel at the scene, including propane, gasoline, diesel and heating oil.
Searchers had to shovel snow from the scene before they could sift through piles of debris, Cossette said, adding that the force of the blast scattered evidence far away and burned some of it.
“It’s long-term, meticulous work,” she said.
The police major crimes unit has also been conducting an off-site investigation that includes speaking with a number of witnesses. Cossette declined to say if police suspect any crimes had been committed, but she said the investigation includes taking legal steps, such as obtaining warrants.
Gregory Patience, a professor of chemical engineering at Polytechnique Montréal, says such explosions are very rare in Canada, though not unheard of. As examples, he referenced a natural gas explosion in Mississauga, Ont., that damaged dozens of homes in 2016, as well as the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster of 2013, in which 47 people were killed when an oil-laden train derailed and exploded in the downtown core.
For an explosion to occur, he said, it takes three things: fuel, oxidation (generally air), and an ignition source to set it off, such as a spark, cigarette, or even static electricity.
While he said he doesn’t know the specifics of what happened in St-Roch-de-l’Achigan, he said the most likely scenario is that there was some kind of fuel or gas leak that ignited.
“There’s no other way it would have happened that I can think of,” he said.
Patience said Canada has a very strict certification process for companies that handle hazardous materials, adding that operators must review and update their procedures regularly. He considers such facilities to be safe, he said, noting that such fuels are used in a large percentage of North American homes with no issues.
He said it will likely take time to know what happened north of Montreal because the investigation will involve looking at vast amounts of highly technical data and examining all the possibilities of what could have gone wrong.
Cossette said several other organizations are also investigating the fire and explosion, including the coroner’s office, the province’s workplace health and safety commission and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2023.
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The state of the union? Unapologetically pro-American, to hear Joe Biden tell it
U.S. President Joe Biden offered no apologies for his spendthrift, pro-American economic strategy Tuesday, making clear in his second state of the union speech that he intends to persist with a protectionist approach that’s making for anxious allies, including Canada.
Biden, with newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy over his shoulder, preached the virtues of working across the aisle as he found himself addressing a newly divided Congress, Republicans have wrested control of the House of Representatives away from Democrats in November.
With some Republicans spoiling for a fight as presidential election season draws near, Biden is under pressure to justify what political opponents say is a profligate approach to the federal purse, making it all the more important to ensure that money stays on U.S. soil.
And he didn’t just defend Buy American. He doubled down on it, promising new rules for federal infrastructure projects that would require all construction materials — not just iron and steel, but copper, aluminum, lumber, glass, drywall and fibre-optic cable — be made in the U.S.
“On my watch, American roads, American bridges and American highways will be made with American products,” Biden said.
“My economic plan is about investing in places and people that have been forgotten. Maybe that’s you watching at home. You remember the jobs that went away. And you wonder whether a path even exists anymore for you and your children to get ahead without moving away.”
Protectionism notwithstanding, most Canadians still see the U.S. as their country’s closest ally, a new poll suggests — but they seem less certain that their powerful neighbour is a force for good in the world.
Nearly 70 per cent of respondents to the online survey, conducted by Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies, said they still see the U.S. as Canada’s best friend, while 16 per cent said they disagreed and 15 per cent said they didn’t know.
Those surveyed were much more divided, however, on the question of whether the U.S. is a positive influence on international affairs: 41 per cent disagreed with that statement, compared with 38 per cent who said they believe it’s true. Twenty-one per cent abstained.
Part of that is likely due to the hyper-partisanship that has come to define U.S. politics and was on clear display as Biden turned to domestic issues like drug costs, oil and gas production, corporate tax increases and the ever-present debt ceiling controversy.
McCarthy has insisted Republicans won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling, a necessary step to avoid the U.S. going into default, without an agreement to reduce spending to 2022 levels, a cut of roughly eight per cent.
Biden said Republicans were proposing deep cuts to cherished programs like Social Security and Medicare, an allegation that prompted eyerolls from McCarthy and catcalls and boos from Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, among others.
“Let’s commit here tonight that the full faith and credit of the United States of America will never, ever be questioned,” he said, before accusing certain Republicans of trying to “take the economy hostage” by proposing an end to those social programs.
“I’m not saying it’s a majority of you … but it’s being proposed by some of you,” Biden told his detractors as they expressed their disdain, which he took as evidence they were backing his position.
“So we all apparently agree: Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? All right, we got unanimity.”
The night wasn’t entirely acrimonious.
Biden spelled out an ambitious effort to curb the flow of deadly drugs like fentanyl into the country, to redouble the search for a cancer cure and to mitigate its causes, to better support veterans at risk of suicide and taking on the mental health crisis.
He twice generated rare bipartisan showers of applause — first in introducing RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, the parents of Tyre Nichols, who died last month after a savage beating by police in Memphis. “Let’s commit ourselves to make the words of Tyre’s mother come true,” Biden said.
“‘Something good must come from this.'”
The chamber roared again for Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul, who was attacked in his California home by an intruder, his rage fuelled by the conspiracy theories that now pervade right-wing politics in the U.S., apparently looking for the former House speaker.
Biden also reiterated his call for a ban on assault weapons, cheering Brandon Tsay, the 26-year-old California man who disarmed the gunman who killed 11 people at a dance studio in Monterey Park last month. And he celebrated Ukraine’s defiance in the face of Russian aggression, as well as the American display of unity, solidarity and leadership that helped to make it happen.
With all eyes again shifting toward the coming race for the White House, Biden’s protectionist rhetoric is likely aimed mostly at winning over a domestic political audience, and most observers agree that it’s not Canada but Beijing that the U.S. has in its sights.
And with the country up in arms over what Chinese officials insist was a weather balloon that drifted through Canadian and U.S. airspace last week, downed over the weekend by U.S. jet fighters, the president has ample reason to argue for economic decoupling from China.
But it would be a mistake to assume that the U.S. will automatically turn to Canada for its energy, raw materials and manufactured goods, said Flavio Volpe, president of Canada’s Auto Parts Manufacturers Association.
“Canada will do well to not assume that we are inside the tent. We will have to prove and reprove ourselves on many points we take for granted,” Volpe said.
“Look for transactional language to begin dominating our relationship rather than ideology. Shared values matter, but sharing value matters more.”
Despite what the president may say publicly, however, the U.S. understands how important Canada is to its own economic fortunes, said Innovation Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, who will be in Washington later this week with Defence Minister Anita Anand.
“I think it is well understood … that in order for the United States to be resilient, Canada has to be part of the equation,” Champagne said in an interview.
“There’s a lot of opportunities ahead of us. And for me, the big question is how can we innovate more together, how can we do more together, and how can we sell more together to the rest of the world.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 2023.
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