August 15, 2005

CN ordered to act quickly to clean up Lake Wabamun fuel spill

Canadian National Railway (CN) has been ordered by the Alberta government to take all necessary steps to clean up the Lake Wabamun fuel spill immediately. An environmental protection order issued to the company on August 8 also requires CN to report progress daily to Alberta Environment and the public, and to provide a report to Alberta Environment within seven days of the completion of cleanup activities. Failure by CN to comply with the order could result in fines or other penalties.

The spill followed a train derailment on August 3 when, at approximately 5:40 a.m., 43 CN rail cars went off the tracks near the summer village of Whitewood Sands Beach in central Alberta, spilling a large quantity of Bunker C fuel oil into Lake Wabamun and affecting birds and other wildlife.

Alberta Environment investigators were immediately dispatched to Lake Wabamun to assess the environmental effects of the oil spill and provide technical assistance with the cleanup. The immediate priority was to contain the oil leak and to protect human health and the environment.

By the weekend of August 6 and 7, 24 boats and three barges were being deployed for containment and cleanup, and by Saturday, CN had positioned 9,000 feet of containment boom and 18,000 feet of absorbent booms at locations around the lake. The company anticipated having an additional 16,000 feet of new containment booms available for deployment on Sunday, with another 44,000 feet slated to arrive on Monday.

Other equipment brought on scene included skimmers, three specialty vacuum units mounted on boats, plus 16 vacuum trucks. No fewer than ten contracted firms have been employed in this effort, with 154 trained specialists working in and around the lake.

CN assumed responsibility for assigning priority to the removal and disposal of the tank cars and remaining oil pools at the main derailment site at Sunset Avenue. While work was scheduled to continue around the clock, CN agreed to refrain from high-noise activities such as cutting cars during the night. By early last week, eight of the 26 tank cars had been removed from the site and CN expected to have all remaining cars in the derailment removed by August 12.

On August 9, CN issued an information bulletin reporting that a product carried in one of the derailed cars had been determined to contain chemical components not fully reflected in the shipping information provided to the railway. The product, which was listed on the manifest as "lube oil," is not designated by Transport Canada as a dangerous commodity. A detailed chemical analysis of the product, supplied by the shipper, raised concerns among provincial and federal environmental and health agencies.

As a result, the regional health authority, Capital Health, advised residents to avoid using water from Wabumun Lake and from wells surrounding the lake for any purpose whatsoever until the results of soil and water testing presently under way at the derailment site have been analyzed and an assessment completed. This includes drinking water, washing dishes, watering lawns or gardens and showering/bathing, in addition to recreational activities.

Environment Alberta subsequently reported that test results on the undetermined product confirmed it to be Imperial Pole Treating Oil. This oil contains hazardous polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Accordingly, area residents were urged to continue not using water from the lake or wells within 500 metres of the lake until the results of lake and well water tests are known.

Alberta Environment continues to work with CN and other stakeholders to assess the environmental effects of the oil spill and ensure that CN moves quickly and takes the appropriate measures to reclaim the site. In addition, the department has retained the services of Dr David Schindler, a water expert at the University of Alberta, and Dr Ron Goodman, a specialist in oil spill reclamation. The two internationally-recognized authorities will provide advice and recommendations to the government on mitigating long-term effects of the spill. For its part, CN has brought in Dr Ed Owen, a world-renowned expert in foreshore remediation, to direct the development of a comprehensive beach cleanup plan.

Both Environment Minister Guy Boutilier and Sustainable Resource Development Minister David Coutts said the long-term effects of the spill could be significant. "Getting the cleanup completed is obviously the first priority. After that, we'll do a complete assessment of the long-term impacts, and will take whatever steps necessary to mitigate those impacts," Boutilier said. "Unfortunately, the effects of the spill will likely be felt for some time on the Lake Wabamun area."

Birds and other wildlife have been affected by the spill, and the provincial government sent a team of wildlife officials to the scene. Aided by local citizens and trained volunteers, the team has been working to treat injured wildlife and protect habitat areas. To date, 475 animals have been cleaned and rehabilitated and taken to Spruce Grove.

Residents have been advised to stay off contaminated beaches and away from the wetland areas. This latter is essential to protect root systems while damage is assessed and an effective treatment plan developed and implemented. A residents' committee has engaged the services of Nichols Environmental to act as on-site observers and advisors, along with legal counsel to provide independent legal advice to the committee. CN has agreed to provide funding for these and related communications services.

A second derailment near Squamish, BC on August 5 sent nine rail cars tumbling down an embankment toward the Cheakamus River. The train had left North Vancouver and was en route to Prince George when it derailed approximately 25 miles (40 km) south of Whistler. While eight of the nine cars were empty, one was a loaded tank car of sodium hydroxide.

An initial report that it was leaking was later confirmed, and CN has mobilized people and equipment to this derailment scene as well for recovery, cleanup and service restoration. The company noted that the train was inspected by a track-side detector 12 miles south of the derailment and no exceptions were noted. The cause of the accident is under investigation.

(See Commentary, page 3)

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