CN Rail crews worked under the watchful eye of B.C. Ministry of Environment officials on Friday (Nov. 9) to clean up diesel fuel that spilled into the Squamish Estuary after a broken piece of CN track punctured a locomotive's fuel tank the previous day.
Work to minimize the impact of the spill — the amount of which still has not been released — began shortly after the first call came in to the Squamish Fire Department on Thursday (Nov. 8) at 7:10 a.m. and was expected to continue until at least late Friday, a District of Squamish official wrote in a statement issued Friday at 2:30 p.m.
Containment measures for fuel from the spill, which occurred on CN lands just north of Squamish Terminals, began with the crew of the train itself.
Quantum Murray, a hazardous materials company, arrived on site by 7:30 a.m., District of Squamish spokesperson Christina Moore said. Containment booms were put in place to ensure the spilled diesel fuel doesn't migrate, CN spokesperson Emily Hamer said on Thursday. Absorbent pads were used to soak up the fuel and trenches are being built to collect the fuel, she said.
“We are meeting every effort to protect waterways,” Hamer said.
On Friday, CN spokesman Warren Chandler said he still could offer no estimate on the size of the spill.
“We're still determining the amount as part of the investigation,” Chandler told The Chief by telephone from Edmonton.
John Buchanan, a local environmental watchdog and former B.C. Rail employee, visited the site on Thursday. Based on his knowledge of the locomotive involved in the mishap and what he saw on the site, he estimated the amount spilled at approximately 2,000 litres.
That's small in comparison to the 29,000 litres of bunker C fuel spilled into Howe Sound and the estuary after a mishap involving the Norwegian freight vessel Westwood Anette in August 2006.
Still, Buchanan voiced concern about the spill's impact on the sensitive estuary ecosystem, especially if significant amounts of diesel remains on the ground and in the soil the next time a tide high enough to inundate the area rolls in.
Buchanan estimated the portion of the estuary inside the containment booms was 50 feet long and 20 feet wide. He said that in addition to removing contaminated soil under the CN Rail tracks — which was being done — clean-up crews should also be digging into the affected parts of the estuary to remove contaminated soil there.
“They need to do that now, before either it starts to rain or you get a high tide that covers the area,” Buchanan said. “And this is spawning season, so there's lots happening right now.”
He added, “Herring spawning season is six weeks away. Herring eggs are very sensitive to environmental contamination.”
Edith Tobe, executive director of the Squamish River Watershed Society, also voiced concern about the spill's impact on the estuary, a unique and highly productive ecosystem that supports a wide variety of migrating shore birds, riparian plants and small mammals.
“'Containment' is a really curious term,” she said.
Dan Esler of the Centre for Wildlife Ecology in the Faculty of Biology at Simon Fraser University on Friday said that just based on official accounts of the clean-up work, it seemed that crews were doing all they could to minimize the spill's impact.
“I see that they've deployed contaminant booms to contain the movement of the fuel. That's really all you can do to try and clean it up,” said Esler, a wildlife population ecologist who has studied the impacts of other spills including the Exxon Valdez crude-oil spill in Alaska in 1989.
“It also seems that they were able to get on it right away. A 20-minute response time is terrific — that's exactly what you would hope for.”
Esler said that while 2,000 litres of fuel might seem like a lot, “It's pretty small compared to the scale of many contaminant spills. I would say short-term effects would be very small and the long-term effects would be almost non-existent.”
Asked whether removing the soil and sedge grass affected by the spill would be a good move, Esler said, “I'm not really a remediation expert so I hesitate to say, but that probably would be more damaging than the contaminant [diesel fuel] itself.”
Moore said the work includes the tearing up of a 50-foot section of track to remove affected soil and repair the track. The soil is to be taken to “a permitted facility” for disposal, she said, adding that crews expected to restore the track “in the next couple of days.”
“Preliminary environmental reports indicate that the impacted area is confined to the immediate spill area, adjacent to the track,” she wrote, adding that no waterways were affected and that all recreational trails in the estuary remained open.
As well, Moore said there had so far been no seepage of fuel into the water system and that District of Squamish crews will monitor drainage ditches if it rains in the next few days for any signs of seepage.
The Squamish Nation and the Squamish River Watershed Society — two key partners in the management of the estuary — were being kept apprised of the situation, Moore wrote.
Mayor Rob Kirkham on Thursday said it appeared the response to the spill was swift.
“We are hopeful the damage to the estuary will be minimal and we will remain on top of this to ensure a continued comprehensive response by all parties,” he said.
Check back with The Chief for updates on this developing story.
— With files from Rebecca Aldous, The Chief