A freight train carrying coal waste and lentils derailed in Alberta Friday, sending seven rail cars into a creek near Banff National Park.
Fifteen Canadian Pacific cars derailed in total, six of which were carrying fly ash — a product created during coal combustion and which, when combined with the bottom ash that tends to gather on the floor of a coal furnace is generally referred to as coal ash — and nine of which were carrying lentils. The cars fell off a bridge over 40 Mile Creek Friday and spilled some of their contents into the water below. The creek is downstream of Banff’s Bow River, but so far, officials say the spill isn’t affecting the river. However, the fly ash could ultimately alter the pH of the water and can create piles of sediment in the creek. It could also threaten the health of the creek’s fish, according to University of Alberta ecology professor David Schindler, because of the traces of metals it contains.
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A Parks Canada spokesperson told the Calgary Herald that so far, pH levels in the creek are normal. Clean-up crews are planning on installing a temporary dam to block the coal waste and lentils from entering the river from the creek, and officials are continuing to monitor the health of the creek. So far, it’s unclear how much fly ash and lentils spilled into the creek, but the spill has turned the typically clear water in the creek a brownish gray color.
The spill should serve as a warning to Canadian officials that a far more serious spill could impact Banff — or other parts of Canada — in the future, Schindler told the Calgary Herald. In any one 24-hour period, according to Canadian Pacific, 22 to 27 trains make their way through the area of the derailment, some of them carrying oil and other petroleum materials.
“Like the Obed spill a year ago, I think this is a warning not to be so cavalier about environmental spills, whether they be from pipelines, trains or tailings ponds,” he said. “Eventually we will have a spill in the wrong place and it will be disastrous.”
The Obed spill occurred in October 2013, when a breach in a tailings pond at the Obed Mountain Mine sent about 176 million gallons of waste water into the Athabasca River. One Canadian scientist has called it “one of the biggest spills in North American history,” but it’s far from the only major spill Canada has experienced in recent years. Last July, 47 people died after an oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. And this summer, hundreds of British Columbians couldn’t drink their water after a breach in a tailings pond from the open-pit Mount Polley copper and gold mine sent 1.3 billion gallons of waste slurry into Hazeltine Creek.
Jim Pissot, director of the WildCanada Conservation Alliance, told the Calgary Herald that the derailment and spill near Banff should remind Canadians that transporting dangerous materials through sensitive ecosystems carries major risks.
“We have a warning now that it can happen; we’ve had warnings across the country that these things do happen,” he said. “Banff National Park and the Bow River watershed are incredibly important to Canadians. And we ought to be doing everything we can to improve the safety … and be able to respond quickly.”