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Jacques Mercier wades through the oily waters of the Chaudière River north of Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 11, 2013. Mr. Mercier is looking for fish that have died as a result of the pollution in the river caused by the nearby train derailment.PETER POWER/The Globe and Mail

Jacques Mercier thrusts an oil-smeared hand in front of a reporter's camera, rubbing his thumb against his middle and index fingers for emphasis. His skin is stained a rusty orange colour that glistens in the midday sunlight.

The 53-year-old angler is standing knee-deep in the Chaudière River, a winding tributary that is the main source of drinking water for three communities between Lac-Mégantic and Quebec City, where it empties into the St. Lawrence River.

"Look at my fingers – it's all oil," Mr. Mercier said. "It's not only a problem for fish, it's a problem for all the wildlife. Beavers, otters, birds, ducks, all swimming in this. It's unbelievable."

An estimated 250,000 to 300,000 litres of oil spilled into Lac-Mégantic, according to Quebec's Environment Minister, after a train carrying light crude derailed and crashed into the downtown core on July 6. As investigators work to determine what caused the crash, a parallel effort is under way to skim the oil from the lake and river system in an effort to prevent the spill from turning into an ecological – as well as a human – disaster.

Provincial Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet said Monday that much of the oil in the lake and river has already been cleaned up. But some residents fear the impacts on the environment and the small town's tourism industry could last for many years.

Late last week, traces of oil were visible in the Chaudière River at least 10 kilometres downstream from the lake, and the air was pungent with the scent of oil. Multi-coloured sheens could be seen on the surface of the water in areas where the current slowed, and the grass along some stretches of the shoreline was brown and straw-like.

The Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the spill, says it does not know exactly how much oil the train was carrying when it crashed, but each of the 73 tank cars was capable of holding close to 100,000 litres of oil. If all those cars were full, the train would have been carrying about 7.3-million litres – nearly enough to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Some tankers never leaked, and officials say a large amount of oil burned up immediately after the train derailed and several of its tank cars exploded. Some oil also entered the sewer system and was pumped out.

Immediately after the spill, the province used the dam to reduce the flow of water from the lake to the river, helping to slow the dispersion of oil. Between 150,000 and 200,000 litres of oil were pumped out of Lac-Mégantic before it flowed into the river, Mr. Blanchet said, and another nearly 100,000 litres were removed using skimmers and other cleaning tools in the river.

"We believe that in a few days, and at most a few weeks, the stress will be removed. There will be no danger any more," Mr. Blanchet said of the water system on Monday.

Mr. Mercier said the damage does not seem to be as bad as he would have expected, but he continues to worry about the impact on local hunters and fishers – as well as the town's tourism industry. "Everyone around here is here for the nature," he said.

Last Thursday, The Globe and Mail travelled along the river with Mr. Mercier, who is a member of the local hunting and fishing association, to view the impact of the spill on the river. At one stop, he grabbed his rubber boots, yanked off his T-shirt and waded into the water. Reaching down to the rocky bottom, Mr. Mercier grabbed a small, lifeless fish covered with sticky, light brown crude and tossed it on a rock nearby.

Still, some characteristics of the river make the cleanup easier than it would be in other locations, according to Environment Canada. A waterfall and a series of rapids – along with the blistering heat of recent days – should help speed up evaporation and dilution of the oil.

Eastern Canada Response Corporation, hired by the railway company that owns the train, began working to recover the spilled oil from the lake and river on the afternoon of July 6, hours after the crash occurred.

Jim Carson, ECRC's president, said the company is using boats, oil containment booms and skimmers to remove the oil from the surface of the water. The booms run across the river on an angle and direct the oil to one end, where it can be removed and trucked away. Mr. Carson said the oil has not moved past a large dam at Saint-Georges, about 80 kilometres downstream from the spill. But some of the oil sheens may be impossible to recover, he added.

It may be necessary to carve away some sections of the shoreline with a backhoe to remove the oil, depending on what the company discovers about the extent of the damage. Asked how long the entire cleanup may take, Mr. Carson said, "I wish I knew."

A 2005 rail accident that spilled oil into Wabamun Lake, in Alberta, took three years to clean up, he said. But he noted that there is no way to estimate the a time frame for the work in Lac-Mégantic. "We could be there another week or two, or we could be there two months or more. We don't know."