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Derailment leaks toxic chemical into Thompson
Published: July 3, 2008
Source: Globe and mail
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Crew work on cleaning up a CP train derailment on a CN track near Lytton, B.C. CP said Thursday that there is no seepage of chemicals into surrounding waterways.A toxic chemical is leaking from a derailed Canadian Pacific Railway car into B.C.'s Thompson River, an Environment Ministry spokeswoman said Thursday.

A local native leader predicted that the spill could have a “devastating” impact on fisheries if it kills, contaminates or confuses what's left of the river's salmon runs.

The car is one of four that derailed on Tuesday evening after a mudslide near Lytton, B.C. The 100,000-litre cars were carrying ethylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze, and one of the four is submerged in the Thompson River and leaking the chemical into the water, said ministry spokeswoman Kate Thompson.

“The information the divers had yesterday was the valves were sheared, there were punctures, and when they put the knives in, there was liquid coming out,” she said, adding that investigators are trying to determine how fast the chemical is leaking and how best to get the cars out of the water.

“Anything that's submerged is going to be problematic. It's also extremely fast-moving, dark, murky waters, so it's also a safety issue.”

But CP Rail says there's no evidence of a leak.

“Our mechanical specialists have told us that they believe, based on the description from the diver at this time, the car isn't leaking,” Michael LoVecchio said, adding that the company is testing the water near the submerged car and hopes to have the results by the end of the Friday.

“Even if there had been a release, the officials have been very clear they believe there would have been no impact on fisheries, no impact on people,” he said.

But nearby communities and native fishermen fear the leak could deal another blow to the river's salmon stocks.

One tanker hangs off the track and another is submerged in the Thompson River where a mudslide knocked four  cars from the Canadian National track that was being used by Canadian Pacific. The cars contain glycol, which is used to produce windshield wiper fluid and antifreeze.Lytton First Nation Chief Byron Spinks said the band has taken its own samples of the water and fish from the river and is sending them to be analyzed.

“We're taking every precautionary measure to address the concerns of our residents because the salmon is a major resource that we rely on for our livelihood and we want to ensure ... the impact of the glycol in those tanks will be minimized,” he said.

The band's fishing has been restricted due to declining levels of salmon in the river. Now, Mr. Spinks fears the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will close fisheries in the area if fish are found to be contaminated with the chemical.

“That would have a devastating effect on our people,” he said. “We just have only begun to start fishing, and if there's contamination right now, that will prevent us from harvesting more fish.”

Ernie Crey, an adviser to the Sto:Lo Tribal Council, said if the chemical enters the Fraser River, it could debilitate the scarce Early Stuart sockeye salmon, whose numbers have dwindled to a predicted 39,000 this year from 200,000 a few years ago.

“That run of sockeye has been on the decline now for well over a decade, and the Department of Fisheries and the aboriginal communities are having to resort to heroic methods to try to preserve this run. … We have this potential chemical spill at the very time they're entering the river – the potential for wiping out this run is there.”

Craig Orr, who has a PhD in ecology and is director of the Watershed Watch Society, said ethylene glycol is biodegradable and its toxicity to aquatic organisms is low, especially once the chemical is diluted in the river. But it could have other “sub-lethal effects,” such as hampering salmon's ability to swim or to smell their way back to their spawning grounds.

“These fish are already fairly stressed – sockeye in particular,” he said. “We just want to make sure we don't put additional stressors.”

What's more worrisome, Mr. Orr said, is that toxic spills from rail cars continue to be a problem: In 2005, caustic soda from a Canadian National Railway car spilled into the Cheakamus River north of Squamish, killing more than 500,000 fish.

“It seems like it's a bit of a crapshoot what kind of chemical spills next into a system,” he said. “Our streams are already hit so hard by everything else. … There needs to be some sober second looks at how we can prevent these things in the future.”

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