Squamish estuary spill site a toxic wasteland 

Post-spill sediment tests show alarming levels of chemicals

click to flip through (2) "In fact at that concentration it might be considered toxic waste.” - Squamish environment coordinator Francesca Knight on disturbing test results for Squamish estuary. Photo by Maureen Provencal
  • "In fact at that concentration it might be considered toxic waste.” Squamish environment
    coordinator Francesca Knight on disturbing test results for Squamish estuary.
    Photo by Maureen Provencal

Toxic levels of hydrocarbons, nearly 1,000 times provincial safety standards, in areas of the Squamish estuary affected by August’s bunker fuel spill have local and First Nations environment staff concerned.

Sample tests taken one month after the 30,000-litre spill at Squamish terminal reveal high levels of hydrocarbons in estuary sediments. Levels of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAH levels, in the estuary’s channels are 917 times above the province’s minimum criteria for determining contaminated sites.

Found in bunker sea fuel, hydrocarbons are a cocktail of a dozen chemicals, many of which are toxic. Tests conducted Sept. 5, after estuary clean-up operations were supposedly complete, were funded by Squamish River Watershed Society and coordinated by District of Squamish environment staff. Results point to an endangered environment for invertebrates — snails, worms, and insects — that live in the estuary and are the bottom of a food chain that includes birds, salmon and ultimately, humans.

“These numbers (the province’s baseline criteria for determining contaminated sites) are based on what these little critters can handle,” said Francesca Knight, Squamish’s environment coordinator. “If you have between 10 and 100 times you have a lot of reason to be concerned and you’d be doing some pretty detailed site evaluations and testing for toxicity, and possibly digging out the areas where your sediments were killing test organisms. When you get up into several hundreds you’ve got a severe problem. In fact at that concentration it might be considered toxic waste.”

Samples were taken from five different locations in areas of the estuary affected by the Aug. 4 spill that occurred when a fuel tank was punctured on the Norwegian cargo ship Westwood Anette. The ship was blown onto port pilings. High winds pushed bunker sea fuel into estuary side channels and clean up crews worked for almost a month cleaning sedges, grasses and birds.

Tests by Vancouver-based Maxxim Laboratories produced results for a dozen different chemicals, including toxic 2-Methylnaphthalene. Provincial guidelines state that in environmentally sensitive areas such as fish spawning aquatic habitats levels of hydrocarbon 2-Methylnapthalene should not exceed 120 micrograms per kilogram. Sediment samples from channel one in the estuary show 110,040 micrograms of 2-Methylnapthalene per kilogram. Samples taken in areas of the estuary unaffected by the spill show negligible amounts of any hydrocarbon.

“It’s no surprise following an oil spill when you sample an oiled beach that you’re going to have oil in the sample,” said Greg Challenger, environmental consultant for the Westwood Anette’s ship owners.

Challenger has also done sediment sampling for the ship owners but has not yet received results.

“There’s oil on the beach and no matter what you do you can’t pick it all up,” he said.

But the District of Squamish feels differently.

“We really hope that Environment Canada and provincial Ministry of Environment see the seriousness of this and react appropriately,” said Squamish Councillor Patrician Heintzman. “Everyone seems to be shirking their responsibilities, hoping that someone will pick up the ball and relying on the responsible party (shipowners Gearbulk Canada) to do the responsible thing, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen.”

Squamish’s environment coordinator thinks the affected sediments should be excavated and disposed of at a toxic waste facility in Washington or Alberta.

“It’s a fairly small portion of the estuary and I would rather just get that source,” said Knight. “Because if the sediments are contaminated like that the invertebrates that live in the sediment either die or ingest it into their tissue and it bioaccumulates, goes up the food chain.”

Squamish Nation’s land management coordinator is equally concerned.

“It’s pretty frightening in the long-term effects on invertebrates, benthos, and water quality,” said Randall Lewis. “If you get a big storm, shaking everything up and redistributing it, it’s not good.”

In an e-mail, Ministry of Environment spokesperson Don McDonald said “ the provincial and federal governments are continuing to work towards ensuring the completion of a pollution abatement and monitoring plan and the level of remaining contaminants will be managed through this plan.” McDonald could not identify the scope of the monitoring plan nor comment on the chemical levels found in sediment testing.

Environment Canada spokesperson Robin Barcham said questions regarding sediment contamination are not within the boundaries of the monitoring plan being conducted by the department.

Squamish Nation’s Lewis says action needs to be taken.

“We’re more fortunate than other areas that have had some disastrous oil spills. Ours is basically a wake-up call, going holy shit, this is a small one, not like what a major one (would cause). We need to get our ducks in a row in order to make sure that what we do next is appropriate.”

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