Monday, August 08, 2005

Crash National's reputation continues unhindered....

Cleanup Continues in Wabamun, AB

The CN main rail line through Wabamun, AB, reopened Friday evening after residents unhappy with cleanup operations following Wednesday's train crash ended a five-hour human blockade. Of the 45 cars that derailed, 12 cars carrying petroleum products ruptured, spilling their contents onto the ground and into Wabamun Lake. CN officials said that at the time they were loaded, those cars were carrying 918,000 litres of oil, about the volume needed to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. The railway said it has recovered fewer than 200,000 litres of oil from the crash site, leaving almost half a million litres still in the lake and on the ground. The blockade began after CN officials failed to appear at a scheduled morning meeting with local residents. More than 50 residents crowded the crossing for almost five hours, waiting for some response from CN while RCMP officers looked on. But residents left an evening meeting with CN officials with a single hope - and promise from the company - on their minds. "We're confident that we're making the best of a bad see the parts of the lake not yet affected protected," resident Doug Goss said. CN spokesman Jim Feeny characterized the nearly two-hour-long meeting as "very productive."

Critics are outraged heavy oil continued to leak into the lake Sunday and wind pushed an oil plume beyond a containment boom into the once oil-free eastern side of the lake. "What I want to see is a disaster-response car on every train. I want CN to have a response unit ready to go at the ring of a phone in Edmonton and every major centre," cottager Gordon Soneff told the crowd of about 200 gathered at a public information meeting hosted by CN yesterday. Officials from Alberta Environment, Capital Health and environmental experts were also available at the public meeting. After the meeting, CN evp Ed Harris said moving rail lines away from the shores of Wabamun Lake would be physically impossible. "We have not given any more thought to moving the rail lines. We will look at the railroad a few weeks down the road, but there are no immediate plans to change the location of the railroad. That is physically impossible." Cottagers and local residents grilled Harris over the size and speed of freight trains that operate along the stretch of rail that passes Wabamun Lake. Since resuming operation on Friday, Harris said trains along the corridor had reduced their speed, but said that was done solely as a precaution due to the number of people now crossing the tracks and there is no need to permanently reduce the size or speed of trains in the area.

CN has said it suspects a defective piece of rail could be the cause of the accident, but the Transportation Safety Board's Art Nordholm, said problems with the rail cars have not been ruled out. "We do not have a cause as of yet," he said Sunday. "We still have not ruled out rail failure, nor have we ruled out car failure." Harris told the meeting that Transport Canada requires the rail company to electronically inspect the track once a year, and CN does this four times a year. The last inspection was in May. The track is also physically inspected four times a week, and that was done the day before the derailment. He also claimed CN's emergency response plan went into effect within hours of the derailment. Concerns were also raised regarding a rail crossing near the site of the derailment. Feeny confirmed that wooden crossing planks as well as railway ties and a section of rail were replaced at there about six weeks ago. He said there was no reason to believe there was any problem with the work. Company officials handed out information bulletins and instructions for residents on how they can claim expenses they may have incurred as a result of the derailment. CN has agreed to cover all reasonable costs and damages. Doug Goss, a spokesman for the townspeople, said CN has also agreed to pay for the residents to hire consultants to ensure that their issues are addressed. "We do need our own people working for us as our consultants so that we are all satisfied that we have the right environmental consultants giving us our advice. We intend to get some communications people so you have a point of contact as well. I have a job to get back to like the rest of you. We'll need our own legal counsel as well." Goss said the town had not hired a lawyer, but individual residents with specific claims might seek their own legal counsel.

Meanwhile, more than 150 people are now working on cleaning up the spill. Cleanup crews continue their containment efforts and thousands of metres of new containment boom have been deployed after arriving from Montreal and Texas. More than a dozen vacuum trucks are working at the shore. Norman Fok, executive director of environmental health for Capital Health, said the health authority has been taking air, water and soil samples from areas around the lake for testing and expects to have the results from those tests today or Tuesday. Ron Goodman, who oversaw the Exxon Valdez oil spill cleanup and has been hired to advise Alberta Environment at the Wabamun site, said about 10 to 15% of the oil evaporated when the fuel was dislodged and came into contact with the air. Another 30 to 40% of the oil will be skimmed from the top of the lake and vacuumed away from shorelines, while the remainder of the material will biodegrade or sink to the bottom of the lake. CN has also brought in specialists to help supervise the cleanup and veterinarians and wildlife experts to help tend to injured wildlife. “They've stepped up their efforts,” said Brad Ledig, an Alberta Environment spokesman. CN has not set a timeline for complete remediation, said Ledig, citing wind and other weather conditions that can set back cleanup efforts. Alberta Environment, which issued an environmental protection order on Friday to hasten cleanup of the site, has also dispatched inspectors to the area. CN could face fines or other penalties if it fails to clean up the site quickly or adequately.

By yesterday, 243 oil-covered birds and a few animals had been brought in to a makeshift cleanup centre. Although the material isn't toxic, at least 77 of the birds have choked to death after being doused in the sticky black substance. World renowned experts in the rescue and rehabilitation of oil-covered birds have been brought in from California by CN. Hugh Wollis, a wildlife biologist for Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, said birds and animals collected were being shipped to a warehouse site in Spruce Grove. Vast amounts of water are needed to properly clean the birds and water supplies locally are at a premium. CN has agreed to fund a shuttle service from Wabamun to the cleaning station in Stony Plain where the birds will be kept for five to six weeks before being released back into the wild. CN has not set a price tag for this outside help to residents. Alberta Environment also has not figured out costs to taxpayers. And TransAlta reported that one of its three power plants that draws cooling water from the lake has been shut down because of concern that the oil would foul its cooling system.

Finally, an Edmonton Journal editorial suggests that CN should have been better prepared to galvanize efforts to contain the spill. Both the railway and the Alberta government need to make every effort to clean up the mess and to learn from it. The editorial hopes that the spill will lead to new and better protocols on how to respond to such train wrecks. And a Calgary Herald editorial suggests it's hard to fault CN for its clean-up efforts. The editorial points out it made sense to repair the rail line first to stop the leakage and prevent further damage. By clearing the scene, several evacuated families were able to get home again. CN had booms in place quickly and skimmers were on the water within a day.
(Edmonton Journal, Edmonton Sun, Canadian Press 050805, 050806, 050807, 050808, Globe and Mail 050608, 050808, CanWest News Service 050807, Calgary Herald 050808)