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Five years after disastrous B.C. spill, the Cheakamus River teems with life Add to ...

"The jury is still out on the steelhead being recovered," Ms. Melville cautions. "We had this really big steelhead year in 2010, but that could draw back depending on predator recovery and if ocean survival is not as good [in the future]"

Ironically, part of the reason for the surge in steelhead numbers could be the decimation of another fish - two species of the sculpin, small but voracious predators fond of digging into the gravel to eat incubating salmon and steelhead eggs.

CN could be out of the watershed as early as 2015. Ms. Svendsen says a final review of recovery data planned for that year will guide the decision to either extend or terminate the company's involvement.

B.C.'s Minister of Environment, Barry Penner, says the current government deficit makes it impossible for him to commit funds to support the future maintenance of the fish habitat on the Cheakamus, at least for now.

He points to a provincial contribution of $21-million to the Living Rivers Trust Fund, which has been a source for some habitat work in the Squamish River watershed, including the logjam that Randall Lewis and the Squamish Nation permitted to be built on their land this year.

Mr. Lewis says that when the 2011 spring freshet arrives, the logjam on which he stands will be submerged, providing forage and hiding space for the progeny of the chinook that are jumping all around him.

Even with the unexpected rebound, he remains critical of CN for both the spill and their use of what he considers "genetically inferior" hatchery fish to bolster the salmon and steelhead recovery. A lingering court battle with CN adds to the tension. Still, he concedes that not everything coming from the spill has been bad.

"Government agencies have next to no money for work like this, so even though the spill was negative, there was the opportunity to build this for the fish."

What the spill is costing CN

The Cheakamus spill will end up costing CN more than $7-million, not including the undisclosed expense of settling legal claims to date, or the outcome of the single remaining claim by the Squamish Nation ,which is still before the courts. Of that, the $5.3-million CN has committed until 2015 goes toward recovery efforts on the Cheakamus and Squamish watershed.

After pleading guilty to federal Fisheries Act charges in May, 2009, the Canadian National Railway Co. was required to pay $400,000, including a fine of $50,000 and an order to pay $350,000 for restoration projects in the Squamish River watershed. The company was also ordered to contribute $50,000 for an "environmental sensitivity mapping" project led by Environment Canada that will create a one-stop database of information about water bodies and other natural features close to CN rail lines.

"The purpose of this order is to assist CN in minimizing the negative impacts of its operations on the natural environment, for preventing, containing, mitigating the impacts and clean up of spills," says Environment Canada's Mark Johnson.

The company's safety record

A 2007 Transportation Safety Board investigation blamed the Cheakamus derailment on a combination of outdated technology and poor CN staff training and supervision. At the time of the derailment, the 144-car CN freight train was negotiating a steep uphill stretch of the line. Nine cars derailed and fell from a bridge into the Cheakamus River when the engines at the front of the train surged in response to the accidental shutdown of two locomotives situated in the middle of the train.

The Aug. 5 accident was the first of four CN derailments that occurred in the Squamish Subdivision - the rail section between North Vancouver and Lillooet - between August and December, 2005. After the fourth derailment, new restrictions in this area limited northbound trains to 99 cars and a total weight of about 5,400 tonnes; new measures were also imposed on how trains were set up - including where empty cars, filled cars, and locomotives were situated. George Fowler, the lead investigator in the TSB investigation, says these measures remain in force.

"We really went after CN in particular with their long-train, heavy-train practices," he says. "Those restrictions are working, because there hasn't been a main-track derailment in the Squamish Subdivision since."

Since 2008, CN reports its total main track accidents have dropped 63 per cent across their operations, the result of "ongoing investments in training, new equipment, and dedication to our safety management system."

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