Less than two weeks after a train derailment spilled more than 40,000 litres of caustic sodium hydroxide into the Cheakamus River, the true scope of the damage to fish and their food sources is only starting to be realized.
Earlier estimates put the kill between 70 and 90 per cent in the affected area of the Cheakamus before the chemical cooled and could be absorbed or diluted by the waterway. While exact numbers can never be known, current kill estimates are about 90 per cent – all of the species that were hit by the chemical spill are likely dead or dying.
"Government agencies are using the 90 per cent number in the main stream, but we don’t really know, the river is quite silty and coloured so it’s very hard to determine real numbers," said Karl Halverson of the North Vancouver Outdoor School.
"It’s also understood that 90 per cent is likely a conservative estimate, and that the kill was likely higher."
The North Vancouver Outdoor School is downstream of the spill, and has several spawning channels. One of the channels was hit by the chemical, resulting in an almost complete kill of fish. But the school received warning from residents and was able to close off the other two channels. Halverson said it isn’t likely that the school’s operations will be affected by the spill, but as a "major stakeholder" on the Cheakamus he hopes to be part of the remediation talks and efforts.
The spill took place at approximately 7:30 a.m. on Aug. 5. Nine cars derailed en route to Prince George in a section of the Cheakamus Canyon, including one car that carried the sodium hydroxide. Known by the chemical symbol NaOH, sodium hydroxide is used for a variety of industrial applications in liquid forms. It’s extremely acidic, burning the fish it came into contact with. Residents reported seeing fish jump out of the water onto the rocks when the plume came through, and some living fish have been discovered further downstream in the Squamish River that are in distress with burned gills and other damage.
Sodium Hydroxide is also extremely reactive, and turns into harmless compounds when exposed to oxygen and water. The quality of the water returned to normal shortly after the spill, and there were no reported risks to residents along the river using well water.
The main concern is the impact that the spill had on resident fish, insects, invertebrates and other living organisms in the river, and how the river can sustain life in the future when the entire food chain was damaged.
Although Halverson said he would have like to have received more official notification after the spill was reported, rather than hearing the worst from neighbours upstream of the school, he is satisfied with the level of response.