Almost 200 community members put Canadian National Railway and other representatives in the hot seat last week, questioning why there is still no recovery plan to clean up the Cheakamus River six months after a caustic river spill killed an estimated half million fish.
"What I see is they’re doing a lot of work on what has happened and what the impact was," said Vancouver businessman and angler Rod Hamilton, "[But] I don’t have a sense of what they’re doing and what they’re doing to get the Cheakamus River back to what it was."
CN hosted the open house with steering committee representatives at the Squamish Adventure Centre on Feb. 8 to answer questions from the public about rehabilitation plans for the river. The half-dozen committee members on hand to explain the dozen poster displays and hand out a draft proposal were peppered with questions by anglers, businessmen, environmentalists, and locals concerned about slow recovery plan progress.
"I’d like to see results and a plan of action," said Linda Dupuis, a Squamish ecologist. "There should be an action plan addressing the ecosystem, but I don’t see anything about the riparian zone."
On Aug. 5, nine cars of a CN train derailed in the Cheakamus River canyon, north of Squamish. One of the tanker cars broke open, spilling more than 41,000 litres of caustic soda into the Cheakamus River. Fish suffered burns and suffocated along an 18-kilometre stretch of the river by sodium hydroxide, a chemical akin to oven cleaner. Seven species of fish were affected, with 95 per cent of Steelhead over three brood years killed.
Squamish resident Allen Lewis had gone swimming with two nieces and their father in the river on the morning of the spill and suffered burns to his feet as a result. But he came to the open house to see what rehabilitation plans are being drafted for the river and what is being done to make sure another accident like this doesn’t happen again.
"I’d like them to get on it, so we can fish again," Lewis said. "They need some cement boundaries, like the highway, so that if the trains wipe out again... there’s some form of safety so they’re not going into the river."
River recovery could take up to 50 years, according to ministry of environment findings, the Vancouver Sun reported last week.
"Vitually all free swimming fish occupying the Cheakamus River at the time of the spill were killed," the report said, estimating that as many as 500,000 fish were killed. Assessment of the CN Rail Caustic Soda Spill, August 5, 2005 on the Fish Populations of the Cheakamus River was co-authored by federal and private-sector biologists and by Greg Wilson, a ministry of environment biologist in attendance at the open house.