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Local Toxic Spill between Squamish & Whistler BC


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Toxic spill devastates B.C. community

SQUAMISH: Residents want to know why they weren't told about disaster sooner

Kim Thompson

Special to The Province; with files from Ethan Baron and The Canadian Press

Sunday, August 07, 2005

SQUAMISH -- Crews battled non-stop yesterday to mop up after a train derailment spewed thousands of litres of toxic chemicals into the Cheakamus River north of town.

Area residents and tourism businesses battled equally hard to contain their anger over what they called unacceptable delays in warning people of the health dangers posed by the spill.

Health officials did warn residents not to use water from the 70 to 100 wells within 100 metres of the river, to avoid consuming fish and wildlife from the area and to avoid the river -- where dead fish were still floating near the banks -- itself.

But the warning came too late, a number of residents told reporters.

"Over 10 hours passed before the warning was released," fumed Dave Harper, an area resident and member of the Steelhead Recovery Commission.

"People were bathing and drawing water out of the Cheakamus River all day long. They were not warned -- and that is a major issue."

Contacting contaminated water could cause skin irritation or consuming it could cause gastrointestinal irritation.

There were no reports of illness as of press time last night, when the Cheakamus and the Squamish River downstream reopened for recreation.

Damian Lustic, a manager for Sunwolf Outdoor Centre near Squamish, said emergency agencies were also lax about notifying rafting companies about the dangerous spill.

"Nobody informed anybody that the spill had happened," Lustic told The Province.

"It was 12 o'clock [Friday afternoon] before we even heard that anything had happened, and we didn't hear it from anyone official.

"It was completely word of mouth."

The spill occurred at about 7:15 a.m.

One company ran rafts down the river Friday afternoon because it hadn't heard about the spill, Lustic said.

Lance Sundquist, incident commander for the provincial Environment Ministry, said last night that tests showed the pH balance of the river had already returned to normal.

The incident began when a 144-car CN Rail freight train bound for Prince George left its track Friday morning. Nine cars tumbled 12 meters down the steep Cheakamus River canyon.

One was a tanker loaded with 51,000 litres of caustic soda, a highly corrosive liquid used in the pulp and paper industry. As it split, much of the contents leaked into the river.

"There have been a number of fish killed that were killed outright or have been suffering ill consequences from a higher-pH water," Sundquist said.

"Although there are some fish that have died or are not in very good health as a result of this, crews were observing healthy fish, or what they believe to be healthy fish, in the river as well."

Sundquist said it will take at least a month to assess the damage the spill has caused to the fish population.

According to area residents, thousands of dead fish washed up on the shores of the Cheakamus.

"I have seen every species that lives in the river dead," Squamish resident Brian Klassen said yesterday. "I just walked past a pile of more than 1,000 severely acid-burned fish. We are picking up a lot of dead fish along the river banks, and it looks like they were actually trying to get out of the water."

Carl Halverson, property manager for the North Vancouver Outdoor School, was among the first on the scene.

"The river turned into a khaki colour and mature fish started to float past. Their gills were so badly damaged that they were unable to breathe. It killed every species across the spectrum from coho [and] steelhead to Lamprey eels. The devastation makes you sick to your stomach."

Adventure-tour operators said the disaster could not have come at a worse time, since August is peak season for many of them, and they worried that the spill would take a toll on area wildlife.

Early yesterday morning, a dazed blue heron was spotted on a sand bar in the river. The bird appeared highly lethargic, staring blankly at approaching humans.

Bryan Lehman, who lives next to the river, could only shake his head in disbelief at the sight: "The heron should have moved before we [got this close]. This is devastating."

If the blue heron is any indication, the long-term effects of the spill will be felt along the river's course into Howe Sound.

Caroline Melville, a contract wildlife consultant, noted that two of the most durable fish in the river, eels and young salmon, were among the dead and called it a telling sign.

"I have looked at other caustic-soda spills and, to be honest, it takes years to recover," Melville said.

Meantime, the Cheakamus is still at risk.

CN spokesman Graham Dallas confirmed that 10,000 litres of the caustic soda remains in the broken tanker.

He said crews are working around the clock to extract it, and the remaining cars, safely.

"In terms of the next step, we are hoping to cool the chemical into a solid product, which could take a few days," Dallas said.

Cause of the derailment is still under investigation by officials from a variety of agencies such as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Transport Canada. Rail service was expected to be restored by today.

- CN Rail said yesterday a faulty rail that had not been inspected in nearly three months caused 43 freight cars to derail on the shores of Alberta's Lake Wabamun Wednesday, spilling thousands of litres of oil into the water.


Sodium hydroxide is a type of lye used in production of paper, soap, detergent and textiles such as rayon.

Dissolved sodium hydroxide is extremely corrosive and can cause blindness, deep-tissue burns, permanent scarring and death. Cancers have developed at skin-burn sites.

Ingestion can result in severe pain, burning of the mouth, throat and esophagus, vomiting, diarrhea, collapse and death. Cancer may develop up to 42 years after ingestion.

Victims of sodium hydroxide spills or ingestion should be transported to an emergency medical facility as quickly as possible.


© The Vancouver Province 2005

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Actually, Paisley, I wish that were true.

In actual fact, just south of Squamish is a "town" / area called "Britannia". It used to be the home of a mining community which closed long ago. Since then, there has been toxic material constantly leeching into the ocean from that area, and it has been declared the worst ongoing environmental disaster site in North America! It was ignored forever. It is truly an embarrassment to BC, and indeed the country, but it's finally being cleaned up.


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already mildly polluted river or not, this sort of spill is like a travelling xenocidal circus of destruction. as the plume moves in the water, it takes out fish and habitat as it passes, basically burning everything in its' path.

it will eventually disperse and become weaker as it moves downstream, but i would imagine that it wouldn't really dilute until it hit the delta & slower water.

"The river turned into a khaki colour and mature fish started to float past. Their gills were so badly damaged that they were unable to breathe. It killed every species across the spectrum from coho [and] steelhead to Lamprey eels. The devastation makes you sick to your stomach."


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