Don Meredith Professional Writing

Bludgeoning Wabamun Lake by Don Meredith © 2005
(first published in the September 2005 Alberta Outdoorsmen)

OWCFirst Place
Magazine Column

Outdoor Writers of Canada
2006 National Communications Awards

oil coating shoreline

I regret having to write this column. You see, I live near Wabamun Lake—not close enough to be directly affected by the recent environmental disaster that occurred there, but close enough to feel the pain of the lake. Our family regularly goes to the lake to fish, watch wildlife and run our boat. We see the skies over the lake from our home and I often watch thunderstorms build as they suck up the warm moisture evaporating off the lake and prepare to drop it elsewhere in the form of rain or hail. I do business in the Village of Wabamun and know how closely its residents are attached to the lake, its ecosystem and commerce. Pain does not begin to explain what we all feel.

On Wednesday, August 3, 2005 at 5:20 a.m., 43 rail cars of a CN train derailed on the north shore of Wabamun Lake, west of the Village of Wabamun and near the summer community of Whitewood Sands. Twenty-six of the 43 cars carried bunker C fuel oil (commonly used in marine diesel engines among other uses), and 12 of those 26 cars leaked fuel. According to Alberta Environment, 730,000 litres of the fuel leaked and 560,000 litres entered the lake. As it turned out, at least one of those leaking cars also contained pole treating oil, a carcinogenic (cancer causing) product designed to be used with pentachlorophenol (PCP) to preserve wood products such as utility poles. (The above and following information was gleaned from various sources, including CN, Lake Wabamun Residents Committee, The Stony Plain Reporter, The Edmonton Sun and my personal communications with lakeside residents.)

Now, under normal circumstances in normal political jurisdictions, a previously devised disaster plan would have swiftly kicked into gear, and governments, corporations and affected residents would have worked together to mitigate the disaster. But we don't live under normal circumstances in this province. Instead, we have chosen a government which believes political ideology trumps good government, and holds steadfast to the constantly discredited belief that corporations will naturally do the right thing when given enough time and incentives.

Initially, CN did act quickly. By 6:00 a.m. on August 3, a crew had arrived to assess the damage, and by 8:00 a.m. they began building a dyke to contain the flow of liquids to the lake. They also began deploying booms to limit the spread of oil on the lake. As well, the Wabamun Fire Department arrived on the scene that morning and temporarily evacuated 20 residents in the immediate vicinity of the spill until damages could be assessed. But was it enough?

Many residents don't think so. While CN was taking these actions to mitigate the spill—including establishing a reclamation centre for the many birds and other wildlife that were drenched with oil—the residents couldn't help but notice that most CN workers brought to the spill site were not concerned with the environmental damage that was occurring but with reopening the rail line to train traffic. Sure enough, while lakeside residents were watching oil wash up on their beaches and shorebirds fly into oil coated water and reeds, the first CN train since the accident passed down the tracks at 7:20 a.m. on Friday, August 5.

Now, CN may have felt it was doing all that it could on the mitigation front. However, public image is everything in public relations and CN appeared to abandon its public image when it failed to inform the residents that it was doing all that it could. CN's image was further degraded when it did not show up for a scheduled meeting with local residents at 11:00 a.m. that same morning in Wabamun. Having had enough of this lack of communication and apparent lack of concern, the residents set up a blockade on the tracks running through the village. They stopped all CN traffic for five hours until CN finally met with them and agreed to keep residents informed and involved in the cleanup.

After that incident, events speeded up. Soon the village and north shore west of the village was overrun with specialists in environmental cleanup, workers to do the job, truckloads of cleanup materials and vacuum trucks to collect and haul the oil. To be fair, CN says it had to search over most of North America to obtain enough boom material to do a proper job of containing and collecting the spill, and it got the material to the lake as fast as possible. I have no reason to doubt what they say. However, the facts are that when the accident occurred no one thought to inform the residents and other stakeholders just what was the plan and how residents and other concerned individuals might fit into that plan. Residents felt they were being left to their own solutions.

Indeed, when people saw shorebirds in distress, many rolled up their pants and waded out to catch them and get them to the reclamation centre. No one told them that the water might be contaminated with toxic substances, and perhaps they should wait for trained personnel clothed in proper protective gear. As one lakeside resident expressed to me, "No one from CN or government was doing anything. Somebody had to do something!"

CN is a corporation whose major function is to provide a service at a profit to its shareholders. If trains are not running, revenue is not flowing into the company and shareholders get nervous. CN, like all corporations, does not like to have nervous shareholders. So, of course its first corporate priority on August 3 was to get the rail line open to traffic as soon as possible. In reality, so-called "corporate citizenship", where corporations do the right thing in terms of environmental and social issues, is something that is defined and enforced by governments. That is why we have governments. That is why we have environment departments—to ensure that corporations and citizens alike do the right thing for the environment upon which we all depend.

Because of what CN knew to be true with Alberta Environment, it did what it thought was necessary for the environment and affected people on August 3 and then went on to ensure that trains would run as soon as possible. Where was Alberta Environment? Waiting for someone to complain about the spill, which is what appears to be its normal operating procedure? If no one complains, there is no problem?

We need better service from our government! Many trains carrying hazardous goods pass through our communities and along our waterways every day. Another disaster like what occurred at Wabamun Lake is inevitable. Deferring sole responsibility for the cleanup to corporations is not acceptable! Leaving citizens in the dark is not acceptable! Not having enough cleanup material ready for such a disaster is not acceptable! We citizens need confidence our government will do the right thing and ensure that others will do likewise. We need leadership!

On August 14, the Wabamun Lake Residents Committee (formed as a result of the spill) held a public meeting to inform residents and stakeholders of the progress of the cleanup. At the outset, CN formally apologized for the spill and stated it would fulfill its responsibilities as outlined by the government and demanded by the residents committee. Several environmental consultants then gave reports about the progress of the cleanup. From a fish and wildlife perspective, here are the highlights:

  • Eighteen species of birds and other wildlife (e.g., muskrats) were brought to the wildlife rehabilitation centre for cleanup. Of the 622 birds received to date (August 14), 250 are still alive. Over 1000 volunteers had signed up to help with the effort.
  • The toxicity of the pollutants in the water is a non-issue for fish, wildlife or people. However, in the lake sediments the spill will add to the pollutants already accumulating there from coal mining and burning. These chemicals and heavy metals are already above the minimum acceptable standards.
  • Anglers may taste a tainting in fish for a while, although the flesh is non-toxic. The spawning of lake whitefish this fall could be an issue that should be monitored.
  • Most of the cleanup will be done by this fall and vegetative recovery should be well underway by spring. Most effects of the spill will be gone in two to five years.

In closing, I would just like to say that many organizations, groups and individuals have come together to address this tragedy. They demonstrated the real concern Albertans have for their environment and the quality of life that environment provides. It is just too bad that both the Alberta Government and CN did not see this tragedy as an opportunity to demonstrate they too share these values. We deserve better!

Postscript: For a 2012 update on Wabamun Lake, go to my blog entry: Wabamun Lake Fisheries Update.

Post-postscript: For a 2017 update on Wabamun Lake, go to my blog entry: Wabamun Lake Fishery Update.

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