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CN mum on spraying concerns

Sea to Sky communities get no response to toxic chemical queries
Bioherbicide developed by UVic biologist team may be answer to railway spraying controversey. Photo by Maureen Provencal

Patricia Heintzman gets worried when she sees bushes growing near railway tracks by her Paradise Valley home. She knows the lush growth means Canadian National Railway will start spraying toxic herbicides again.

“My well is about 70 feet from the railway tracks and it’s not a very deep aquifer,” said Heintzman, a Squamish District councillor. “Every single year I always have a concern.”

Other communities in the Sea to Sky area have similar concerns about chemicals CN uses to control vegetation along tracks that run past homes, school yards, rivers and lakes.

The Village of Pemberton wrote a letter to CN in June expressing apprehension over the railway’s lack of consultation with the community about its spray plans. As of Aug. 30 CN had not responded to the VOP’s concerns, according to David Allen, development services director. The village was also concerned at the short lead time the railway gave, indicating in a May 8 letter that a spraying program would start June 1.

“We received the letter May 15 and only had two weeks to respond and that was inadequate time for us to review the plan,” Allen said. CN refused to provide the village with a copy of their pest management plan, saying it could be reviewed in person at their Surrey offices, Allen said.

CN said the pest management plan will be available on their website as of September 1.

Squamish-Lillooet Regional District also has issues with herbicide spraying.

“There’s been an ongoing lack of relationship with the railways on these issues,” said Steve Olmstead, SLRD planning manager. Five years ago the district filed against BC Rail with the province’s environmental appeal board regarding chemical spraying but lost the appeal. This year SLRD wrote to CN requesting mapping details of areas within regional district boundaries where the railway intended to spray.

“We advised them that the SLRD is opposed to spraying in riparian areas, community aquifers, water sheds and areas of high community use,” Olmstead said.

CN did not respond to the SLRD’s concerns.

Whistler is the only Sea to Sky community that has an agreement with CN to not spray in the corridor. Whistler asked CN to honour a previous agreement the municipality held with BC Rail and CN is adhering to that agreement, said Diana Waltmann, municipal spokesperson.

With proper provincial permits, railways across B.C. are allowed to spray a variety of toxic chemicals that include Amitrole, Garlon 4, Tordon 22K, Escort, Arsdenal, and Roundup to control pests and vegetation growth.

CN maintains the chemicals are safe.

“The products that we use are certified and are licensed and are approved for use in Canada,” said CN spokesperson Jim Feeny, “and there are procedures that are in place for the people who apply our products. They are licensed, are trained, and are certified to use it according to proper specifications.”

Alberni-Qualicum MLA Scott Fraser says that’s not good enough. Fraser says just because chemicals are federally approved doesn’t mean they are safe, pointing out that in the past federal agencies approved DDT and Thalilomide, a chemical and drug later removed from the market.

Fraser has researched chemical spraying out of concern for the future of E&N railway, the Victoria to Comox rail line. Recently donated to Island Corridor Foundation, a non-profit group, the line has not been sprayed in 16 years and invasive Scotch broom is damaging the rail bed. But Fraser doesn’t believe chemicals are the solution.

“Garlon 4 supposedly breaks down in 10 hours but if you look deeper than that you will find that if the product seeps into ground where there is an absence of sunlight it continues to stay at strength for as long as nine months,” Fraser said.

In the legislature this spring Fraser raised concerns about spraying on Vancouver Island, an area dependent on underground aquifers for drinking water. He wasn’t impressed with Environment Minister Barry Penner’s response that 10-metre buffer zones around water sources would ensure safety.

“I said that was like saying there’s a no peeing section in the swimming pool,” Fraser said.

Mae Burrows, of the Vancouver-based Labour Environmental Alliance Society, agrees.

“Maybe it’s cheaper to use toxic chemicals but the problem is when a company does something cheap like that they’re offloading future costs onto the medical system from people who (might) get cancer,” Burrows said. The society is a consortium of representatives from B.C. unions and environmental groups concerned about home and workplace health, safety issues.

Southern Railway, a Vancouver-based cargo railway, holds a one-year contract to maintain and operate the E&N railway for Island Corridor Foundation, which runs a daily passenger service up and down Vancouver Island. The railway’s operations manager, Don McGregor, said the railway will use herbicides as a last resort.

“It’s not a matter of us being reluctant but we do look at other means as much as we possibly can,” McGregor said.

E&N’s rail bed is at the point of no return, McGregor said, with rotting rail ties providing a nursery for invasive weeds and after public consultations are complete this fall the company will start a spraying program.

He said the railway would be interested in looking at a recently registered green bioherbicide product developed by University of Victoria researchers. Licensed for industrial use in Canada and U.S. the fungicide, Chontrol, can be applied as a paste or spray to deciduous trees to prevent re-sprouting says Will Hintz, UVic’s biology chair.

“The important thing about it is it extends the time between treatments and can be used anywhere right up against the sides of streams,” said Hintz. The biologist and a team of researchers have been working on the product for 14 years and received registration approval for the product in August. Test runs of the bioherbicide have been conducted with seed funding from BC Hydro in transmission right of ways. Hintz says the product allows for a more natural regeneration in utility and right of way areas.

“You want a managed ecosystem, you don’t want a dead zone,” Hintz said.