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Cheakamus derailment, spill still a mystery

Federal report not finalized, Squamish’s legal options narrowing


By Vivian Moreau

Eighteen months after 500,000 fish were killed, the result of a CN train derailment that spilled 50,000 liters of caustic soda into Cheakamus River near Squamish, a long-awaited federal report on the accident is still not available.

And the lead investigator for the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) said the report may not be available until early summer. That would be close to the two-year statute of limitations on legal action for the August 2005 spill.

George Fowler said the report, which will be used to determine whether CN is charged, has gone through a preliminary review by four of the board’s 10 members and is now being sent to CN and other agencies for review and input. Once comments have been considered the report still needs to go for editing and translation into French.

Squamish’s mayor is frustrated with the delay.

“At the time we were led to believe it was going to be a relatively straightforward process,” Ian Sutherland said. “If it’s relatively straightforward it amazes me it takes this long to do it.”

TSB’s Fowler didn’t have an explanation.

“I don’t want to get into that. It’s a government organization, I’ll leave it at that,” he said.

Investigators have already determined three of the seven locomotives powering the 144-car train were not running when the derailment occurred north of Squamish.

In the meantime Squamish First Nation is considering filing legal action against CN as a result of losses its members incurred after the spill. In addition to one member who suffered lower body burns from being in the river at the time of the spill, First Nations could not fish the river for a month after the spill.

Many Squamish Nation members rely on stocking their freezers with Cheakamus River salmon and the community’s environmental coordinator said they are considering filing suit against CN for damages.

Although CN has kept its commitment as far as clean up and restoration projects in the area, Randall Lewis said more needs to be done to compensate First Nations. Whether to pursue litigation will ultimately be up to chief and council, Lewis said.

The District of Squamish does not have the option to pursue CN legally in the courts but would do so if it had authority. Although federal and provincial governments can pursue polluters for restitution under federal law, municipal governments cannot, a situation that annoys Squamish’s mayor and a top administrator.

Brent Leigh says the district can’t go after CN for losses to the area’s sport fishing industry or to Squamish’s reputation as a destination spot.

“I’d like to know that when corporations pollute that they are responsible not just for the environmental cleanup but for the socio-economic impacts of those environmental events,” Squamish’s deputy administrator said.

Sutherland echoed his staff’s remarks.

“We have no legal standing so anything we do we have to cajole, beg, and plead with and work through others to get things done, and that’s not acceptable,” Sutherland said.

Sierra Legal Defense Fund says there may be hope yet for Squamish to recoup some of its losses, depending on whether the TSB report recommends charges be laid against CN.

“Depending on how that pans out the district could ask the federal government for money to compensate it and the federal government could ask, if CN is found guilty, to get some of that money back from CN through fines,” said Sean Nixon, a lawyer for Sierra Legal Defense Fund.

However, Nixon points out there is a two-year statute of limitations on filing action after an event like the Cheakamus spill and although that time is rapidly approaching, no action can be taken until TSB’s report is released.

A technical committee formed after the August, 2005 spill, comprised of local environment groups, as well as federal, provincial and district staff and including CN representatives, meets next week to continue work on the river’s recovery plan.