March 13, 2006

Restoration of BC's Cheakamus River progressing well following CN spill

An update on the restoration of the Cheakamus River in British Columbia indicates that its recovery is progressing well following the derailment last August of a Canadian National Railway (CN) train that spilled sodium hydroxide into the river.

The spill killed approximately 90% of the fish in the river at that time. Hardest hit were juvenile steelhead, rainbow trout and coho, followed by adult chinook and pink salmon. Since then, however, the food chain (algae, insects) in the river appears to have recovered quickly.

Following the spill, a technical committee representing the BC Ministry of Environment (MOE), the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Squamish First Nation, the District of Squamish and CN was created to determine strategies and options for recovering all affected species as fast as reasonably possible.

With regard to restoring steelhead populations, for example, the technical committee reviewed a number of recovery options and, based on this review, MOE is recommending proceeding with proven habitat enhancement techniques to replenish the river's population of this species. This recommendation will be referred back to the Technical Committee.

Under provincial steelhead policy, the Cheakamus is designated a "wild" river to preserve the integrity and biodiversity of the steelhead population. Based on the lessons learned from other systems severely affected by spills and natural disasters, the MOE believes that habitat enhancement will allow the river to fully recover within 15 years.

Hatchery-raised pink salmon stocks, which originated in the Cheakamus but are raised at a Chilliwack hatchery, are currently being released into the Cheakamus as part of the recovery effort. This, says the Ministry, will not compromise the wild stock.

A public meeting held last month took provided area residents current information on cleanup of the spill site, recovery actions taken to date, assessments of water quality and impacts on public health, and continuing evaluation of the impacts on fish and other organisms in and around the river. Also discussed was the creation of a stakeholder committee for public participation.

CN is required to complete a draft recovery plan with advice from the technical committee and to present the plan to the public within the next two to three months. The company is also responsible for other continuing work, including a monitoring plan to track recovery, and a longer-term impact assessment to determine the spill's effects on species that could not be assessed immediately after the event. CN is responsible for the full cost of the restoration efforts, which could total millions of dollars.

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