Coal in the Water

Coal in the Water

Ian Johnston raised his family on Mission Creek, spending summers swimming and fishing in its waters. He drinks from a well set 100 metres back from its banks and, for more than two decades, he’s worked with a volunteer group to build up its salmon stocks.

When a train derailed about a kilometre upstream of his South Hazelton home shortly after 7 a.m. on Jan. 19, spilling coal into the creek, he was one of the first on scene.

“You could see there were multiple coal cars in the creek,” Johnston says, disputing CN Rail’s initial statement was that no coal had landed in the water. By the following day, trains were running again. But by press time in late February, piles of coal remained near the tracks, less than 50 metres from the creek and slowly leaching into the earth.

“I think about having kids and the rule that you make a mess, you clean it up,” Johnston says. “It’s still a mess.”

What that mess means for salmon stocks and water quality in Mission Creek remains unclear. February’s record-breaking snowfall was hampering cleanup efforts and making it impossible to know the full extent of the damage. It will likely be years before its effects are fully understood.

According to Brenda Donas, a retired community advisor with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), if approached properly, the incident offers an opportunity to learn more about the effects of coal in salmon-spawning streams and to improve spill-response plans. 

Both Johnston and Donas have been involved with the Chicago Creek Environmental Enhancement Society since the early 1990s, when there were less than 20 coho in Mission Creek. The society started a hatchery program and, in 1994, installed a fence to count returning fish.

“We were getting between 200 and 400 coho adult coming back to spawn every year,” Donas says, at which point focus shifted to habitat reconstruction. “You can have fish coming back, but if there’s nowhere for them to spawn, you’re not going to make any more fish.”

In 2015, the creek saw a whopping 1,800 returning coho. This fall marks the end of that three-year lifecycle and could reveal whether those numbers can be sustained.

But how the coal spill will affect the society’s work has yet to be determined and may take many years—or at least another three-year cycle—to fully appreciate. Bioaccumulation, or the compounding of heavy metals up the food chain, is the biggest concern. Selenium and cadmium, which are commonly found in coal, can cause spinal deformities, lower growth rates, and reduced reproductive rates in salmon, Donas says.

The society is requesting ongoing water-quality monitoring to test bioaccumulation of heavy metals in insects and salmon fry for three coho lifecycles, or roughly a decade. If increases are detected, “we have a problem on our hands,” Donas says. “I fish at the mouth of Mission Creek all the time. I’m eating that stuff.”

Sherry Wright with the Wilps Nikate’en house group also arrived at the site shortly after 8 a.m. on the day of the spill. For the month that followed, she visited every day, working alongside fellow Gitxsan who had been hired to help with cleanup.

“All we can do is sit there and witness and speak to the work that’s being done or not being done,” she says. While the creek bed was scraped clean by excavators within days of the spill and screens were put in place to strain coal sediment from the creek water, she is concerned about the remaining coal.

“I can tell you, the coal has not been removed,” she says.

By late February, CN said it had cleaned up roughly 30 percent of the spilled coal and didn’t have an answer as to when the rest would be removed. Kate Fenske, media relations with CN, said track issues had been ruled out as a cause of the derailment and the company was looking into equipment failure. She added that further monitoring and restoration work would take place in the spring.

With regard to whether the water is safe for downstream residents, Northern Health Authority’s public health protection team said in an email it believes “there is no significant threat to drinking water from this event, based on the materials involved and our review of the water quality testing results and trends.”

According to David Karn with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, water quality monitoring began the day of the derailment and was ongoing, with a more comprehensive sediment collection planned once ice is off the creek. 


“So far, from the results we’ve seen to date, recreational use this summer is not a concern. We will have a better picture when the remainder of the sample results come in,” Karn says. “The impact risks to insects or salmon fry will be assessed when the remaining sampling results are received and could potentially be a part of the long-term monitoring plan.”

But while residents wait to see what long-term impacts come from the derailment, there’s agreement that the crash—with its easily accessed location near Highway 16—presents an opportunity for CN to work with the community and improve its public image. 


“If they were a good environmental corporate citizen, this is an opportunity to put something in place to learn,” Donas says. “We’re just trying for a win-win.”

— Amanda Follett Hosgood