British Columbia

Here's why the pristine blue waters of a northern B.C. river are running neon orange

A northern B.C. First Nation is turning parts of the Skeena River a neon orange this week. It's meant to simulate a toxic spill into the river from a potential CN Rail derailment.

Pouring dye into Skeena River simulates potential toxic spill from CN trains

"Any derailment that happens is very likely to impact the Skeena River," said Mark Biagi, fisheries manager for the Kitsumkalum band in the Terrace area. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

This week, a northern B.C. First Nation will turn the bright blue waters of the Skeena River a neon orange-yellow.

The idea is to simulate a potential toxic spill into the pristine river from derailed railway cars. 

The Kitsumkalum First Nation is pouring a dramatically coloured dye into the waters of a river many consider the backbone of the north coast ecosystem.

"The entire CN Rail corridor is right along the Skeena," explained Mark Biagi, fish and wildlife operations manager for the Kitsumkalum Indian Band, which is also located along the tracks, about five kilometres from Terrace. "Any derailment that happens is very likely to impact the river."

A northwest First Nation will be staining the Skeena River with a highly visible dye, to help create an emergency spill-response plan in case of a CN Rail derailment. (kitsumkalum.com)

The question is how and where a toxic spill would flow. So band staff will follow the simulated spill for hours with a drone. Then they'll continue to monitor its impact using GPS and sensors.

The Skeena River is home to the second-largest sockeye salmon run in B.C. Its ecosystem extends from grizzly habitat in the northwest to sea lion territory off the north coast.

"Biologically, it's a very, very important area, and we need to do whatever it is we can to protect it," said Biagi.

He says the Skeena is also complex, with islands, sloughs, and side channels all the way to the Pacific.

"It makes it very difficult to plan an emergency response. It's difficult to clean up," he said. "How do we deal with a potential spill in the river?" 

Aerial view of the Skeena River estuary. A Terrace-area First Nation wants to protect its waters from any potential rail spill. (Submitted by the Kitsumkalum Indian Band)

Part of the answer may be in the data about the neon dye's movement, which will help the band prepare an effective emergency plan for cleaning up any future spills.

The emergency spill test is taking place as CN Rail traffic to the port of Prince Rupert continues to grow. 

"Right now what we see is the trains are running long, with 200 car trains, which are a lot easier to derail," said Biagi.

The Skeena River, pictured here as it meets the Bulkley River near Hazelton, provides vital habitat for fish and other animals. (Wikimedia Commons)

"As far as what we've been informed, CN is planning on shipping more hydrocarbons, such as diesel and bunker C, the dregs of oil refining, down to the port of Prince Rupert.."

The band will be running coloured dye through the river for several weeks in July.

The Skeena River connects B.C.'s northwest with the Pacific north coast and has the second-biggest sockeye salmon run in the province. (CBC )

They want locals and people fishing the river to know that, unlike a potential spill, this coloured dye is nontoxic, biodegradable and will dissipate over time.  

"It will be a dramatic change, but don't be alarmed," Biagi said.

CN Rail's mainline runs through Terrace and along the Skeena River on its route from Alberta to the port of Prince Rupert. (Dave Gordon)

About the Author

Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener is an award-winning journalist and author. She's been covering the news in central and northern British Columbia for more than 15 years.

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