Cleanup isn't over on anniversary of oil spill at Alberta lake

A year after an overturned freight train dumped 1.3 million litres of heavy bunker fuel oil and wood preservative near Lake Wabamun, the cleanup isn't over.

A year after an overturned freight train dumped 1.3 million litres of heavy bunker fuel oil and wood preservative near Lake Wabamun, the cleanup isn't over.

A child's sandcastle may dot the lake's sandy beach, but blobs of oil can still be found along parts of the shoreline. Health officials say the water is OK for swimming, but notfor drinking.

Rob Dickie, an environmental consultant hired by local residents, said the lake's health has come a long way, but oil is still caught beneath thesoil.

"It's small, fine, little beads of oil. As you walk through the area it will stir some up, it will come to surface and it will sheen," he said.

There has been a lot of talk in the year since the spill, but not enough has changed to prevent a similar disaster, said Doug Goss, chair of a local residents' group.

"If this happened at Pigeon Lake or Sylvan Lake, I'd expect very similar results."

The Canadian National Railway freight train left the tracks in the village of Wabamunon Aug. 3, 2005, spilling heavy fuel and a potentially cancer-causing wood preservative.

Alberta's environment minister called the mess an unprecedented environmental disaster.

After the incident, health officials issued a water use advisory that banned swimming, fishing and the use of boats on the lake.

The accident sparked angry protests by property owners, who accused CN of being more interested in clearing the tracks in the days immediately after the derailment then they were in preventing the slick from spreading.

Oil slick across the lake

CN freight trains still thunder past thespot of last year's spill, wherea boat-launching ramp acted like a riverbed, channelling the thick black oil straight into the lake.

That morning, Bill Purdy, Wabamun's mayor and deputy fire chief, found an oil slick half a kilometre wide spreading across the lake. He spent a frustrating first day trying to contain the slick without proper equipment.

"We had the winds against us. The wind came to about 40 kilometres from the northwest. You'd put out about 20 feet of boom. Then it would tear apart because of the weight of the oil."

The company has a roving crew of two dozen people cleaning the shoreline. CN officials say the company has made improvements since the Wabamun spill, reducing the number of derailments by 40 per cent.

A few months after the derailment, Alberta's environmental protection commission recommended the creation of a single agency to handle disaster response.

Earlier this year, CN offered $7.5 million to people living in the area whose property was contaminated following the derailment. CN has also settled about 1,000 claims.

In June, Alberta Environment charged CN with failing to take all reasonable measures to remedy and confine a spill, an offence punishable by a maximum penalty of $500,000.

And the province expects to have ateamin place By September totake the lead during environmental disasters. It will be headed by Jim Ellis, who has 20 years of emergency planning and operations experience.

'Village on the Lake'

The Village of Wabamun has always depended more on industry than on tourism. Most permanent residents worked at the local power plant or the coal mines that supplied it, but with the plant scheduled to close, people are worried families will leave the 94-year-old village.

Mary Thomas, Wabamun's marketing coordinator, said with money from CN, the area is launching a public relations campaign, redeveloping itself as "Village on the Lake."

"We're starting to attract businesses related to the lake, we have sold all of the lots in our new subdivision," she said.

She's hoping people will think of lake lifewhen they hear the name Wabamun in future.