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Cheakamus-type spills could happen again

Procedures needed to prevent another environmental accident, Labelle says

An independent fishery scientist hired last month by the Ministry of Environment to review Cheakamus River steelhead recovery plans says accidents such as Canadian National Railway’s derailment and caustic soda spill last summer "will likely happen again" and recommends barriers be constructed near bridges to prevent future massive fish kills.

"It is hoped that consideration will be given to installing structures near the bridge that would prevent derailed train cars (if any) from falling into the canyon, and creating additional fish refuges to help buffer the populations from the further spill impacts (if any)," Marc Labelle said in his report Evaluation of Alternative Recovery Strategies for the Cheakamus River, released April 27.

But Transportation Safety Board’s chief investigator into the train accident that killed 500,000 salmon, steelhead, trout, lamprey, and sculpin disagrees that such an accident will reoccur.

"Transport Canada compelled CN to take preventative action following the four Squamish Subdivision derailments last year and, provided operational changes/restrictions are followed, the likelihood of similar derailments is reduced," the safety board’s George Fowler said in an e-mail.

Dr. Labelle, hired by the ministry last month after a public outcry ensued over provincial biologists’ habitat-only steelhead recovery plans, also recommended a combined habitat and hatchery enhancement program be implemented. In response the ministry quickly reversed its position, announcing it will oversee immediate implementation of such a plan.

"We’re obviously very pleased," said Squamish Mayor Ian Sutherland. "We were not happy with the first decision that came down from the ministry and to give the Minister (of Environment Barry Penner) full value, he understood and heard the concerns that we brought forward."

UBC scientist Josh Korman, who spoke out with three other UBC fisheries scientists against the ministry’s original habitat-only plan was equally pleased.

"That’s everything we wanted, that’s awesome, unbelievable," he said. "We always thought that was the most risk-averse option."

Although Labelle states in his report it is questionable whether the steelhead returning this month to the Cheakamus River can be taken advantage of as brood stock, an effort should be made in case 2007 returns are low. The ministry intends to move quickly, utilizing experienced anglers to capture 20 steelhead pairs that could produce 20,000 fin-clipped smolts to 60-80 grams for release next year. The ministry will oversee a combined habitat and hatchery enhancement program from the federally run Tenderfoot Creek Hatchery near Squamish. The program will be fully financed by CN.

"We have always believed that a steelhead propagation program is an effective way to ensure quick recovery of the steelhead population in the river," Normand Pellerin, CN’s assistant vice-president, environment wrote in an e-mail.

"CN is fully committed to the recovery of the Cheakamus," he said, "and will provide whatever resources are necessary to ensure this program, and other programs like habitat enhancement, are successfully implemented."

Dr. Labelle said hatchery supplementation proponents made a valid argument when they pointed out that returning habitat-only enhancement steelhead numbers would be too low to maintain genetic diversity.

He also suggested the ministry consider amending its current policies to deal more effectively with extraordinary events like the August derailment and spill that have a marked impact on recreational and business communities.