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British Columbia Five years after disastrous B.C. spill, the Cheakamus River teems with life

A big chinook salmon breaks the pale green surface of the Cheakamus River just below the Canadian National Railway Co. track that skirts the water's edge.

Just five years ago - in the immediate aftermath of a CN derailment close to Squamish that wiped out life in the river - such a sight would have been impossible. Scientists at that time predicted it would take half a century or more before the salmon and other fish returned to the river in abundance again.

"It's good to see the fish here," says Randall Lewis, the environmental co-ordinator for the Squamish Nation, who grew up fishing and hunting in this watershed. He recalls a different scene on this river: the sight of pink salmon jumping out of the water to escape a toxic plume, while rainbow trout gasped on the banks, their eyes bulging as they died.

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Standing on a shoreline logjam constructed to provide fish habitat, tiny salmon now dart about just below his feet; mayflies hatch on the water as a blue heron patrols the opposite bank, scanning the shallows for fish.

The river is teeming with life, which is all the more remarkable considering the Aug. 5, 2005 derailment in the upper reaches of the Cheakamus, which released about 40,000 litres of caustic soda, killing most of the free-swimming creatures as the chemical swept to sea. At least 500,000 fish - including five species of salmon, bull trout, and resident rainbow and cutthroat trout - were wiped out, including multiple generations of steelhead, the legendary trophy predators of this watershed.

The ongoing recovery promises that aboriginal bands are able to harvest food fish, fishing guides and anglers are working the river, and the myriad fish-dependent wildlife are back, drawing tourists and nature enthusiasts in turn.

Over the last five years, with luck, the dedication of a broad base of volunteers, and millions of CN dollars invested in the recovery, much of the aquatic life is returning in numbers approaching prespill levels. This steady return of life to the Cheakamus is the source of cautious optimism for Caroline Melville, a fisheries technician who co-authored the 2006 report assessing the impacts of the spill.

"Five years later the Cheakamus is recovering well, that's the simple answer," she says. "But it's hard to say what the reasons for the recovery are."

Carl Halvorson says the most remarkable thing about the Cheakamus spill was that the river became extremely toxic to all aquatic life, yet within the space of hours, returned to normal with no lingering toxic effect.

"It was as if a slate had been wiped clean," says Mr. Halvorson, property manager of an outdoor school on the banks of Cheakamus near Brackendale. "The river returned to normal, except that virtually every predator in the river was dead. It was time for life to start over again."

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From the start, the recovery efforts benefited from the reams of data already collected to deal with decades of human impacts on the Cheakamus: The entire watershed was logged to the stream banks between 1920 and 1940; B.C. Hydro's Daisy Lake dam and reservoir has radically altered river flows since it was built in 1957; and dikes cut off the vast complex of off-river channels that provide rearing and spawning areas for fish.

Under enormous public pressure to act in the wake of the spill, CN committed to bringing the Cheakamus back to prespill conditions. The company created a committee to develop and implement recovery plans in 2005, inviting the Squamish Nation and representatives from three levels of government to participate. The recovery plans since then have focused on hatchery production and the creation and improvement of fish habitat.

CN spokeswoman Kelli Svendsen says the company voluntarily committed to the restoration of the Cheakamus in the wake of the accident, and that its ongoing work in the watershed is already bearing fruit.

"The Cheakamus has responded very well in five years," she says. "We're encouraged by the recovery numbers."

Beyond committing a total of $5.3-million or more in funds to at least 2015, CN has expanded its recovery focus beyond the immediate river, recognizing that migrating Cheakamus salmon also rely on the health of the Squamish estuary, the point at which the Squamish River drains into the Pacific Ocean.

Since 2005, at least two million hatchery fish have been released into the Cheakamus River and Squamish estuary, and at least 6,000 square metres of fish habitat have been created. CN has also made money available to community groups like the Squamish River Watershed Society, to pursue projects of their own.

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The numbers of young chinook and coho salmon produced in the Cheakamus in 2009 are comparable to the average number prior to the spill. But by far the most dramatic short-term recovery has been that of steelhead, which were a species of great concern following the spill because their numbers were already so low (only about 300 fish returned annually before the spill). But this year, the B.C. Ministry of Environment estimates five times that number returned to the Cheakamus, including about 1,000 wild steelhead.

"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.

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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.

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"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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