It doesn’t seem to matter how big or small the environmental damage is: The bureaucratic response to spills of toxic substances seldom, if ever, seems adequate —certainly not enough to convince big industrial users to take steps to prevent the next one.
In 2009, CN Rail paid a $400,000 fine for federal Fisheries Act violations for essentially rendering the Cheakamus River lifeless with its spill of 40,000 litres of caustic soda upstream in 2005. True, CN also put something like $5 million for the Cheakamus Ecosystem Restoration Technical Committee and other initiatives. But to us, that merely falls under the heading of “cleanup” — part of the cost of doing business. It does nothing to punitively force companies to take all necessary precautions in the future.
Interestingly, we could find no record that shipping company Gearbulk paid a fine in response to the spill of 29,000 litres of bunker fuel into the Squamish Estuary a year later. If anyone has that information, we’d be greatly obliged.
Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) deemed that 2006 incident unworthy of a full investigation, supposedly “because nothing could be learned” from such a probe. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the TSB would provide precisely the same response to last November’s CN spill of some 5,000 litres of diesel fuel into the estuary. Or should it?
At the very least, we would think the TSB, CN or someone would be able to fully answer a few simple questions about the latest incident, such as: If, as you say, a faulty section of track was to blame for the locomotive’s punctured fuel tank, when was that rail laid? Was it faulty from the outset or did it become that way over time, perhaps because of inadequate track maintenance or other factors?
Fortunately, containment and cleanup efforts appear to have been adequate in the latest spill. But if no one — save the company itself — is really looking into the cause, who’s to say it won’t happen again and be worse the next time?
The Feds now say they want to increase fines for industrial polluters. Problem is, they’ve emasculated our environmental regulations to such a degree that it’ll be more difficult to find them in violation of any sort of law. And that’s what scares us most about what may be coming next to a province near you.
— David Burke