Wabamun Lake oil spill: A decade later, disaster still fresh in residents' minds

Ten years ago, a train accident spilled hundreds of thousands of litres of oil into an Alberta lake, damaging the area and showing how ill-prepared the province was for such a disaster.

CN train derailment poured 800,000 litres of oil into Alberta lake in 2005

The popular recreational lake has since reopened, but some residents say it still suffers some lingering damage from the oil spill 10 years ago. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC)

It's been a decade since hundreds of thousands of litres of heavy oil marred the shores of Wabamun Lake.

Still, every detail of that day is fresh in the mind of Brenda McDonald.

"You could see the loons and the ducks being dragged under from having the oil on them," she said, standing on the calm shores of the lake Sunday.

The shores were black, the wildlife was covered in oil.- Doug Goss, cabin owner

"You could see the oil just pouring in to people's properties. You could see how close the cars flew and almost took out people's cabins, with people in them."

On August 3, 2005, an early-morning CN train was thundering down the tracks that run along the north edge of the lake, on its way from Edmonton to the west coast.

At 5:40 a.m., the train hit a faulty rail — a section of worn-out track within which fractures had been slowly forming for years. Forty-three cars left the tracks, some spilling their contents into the ditch along the track.

CN estimates that more than 700,000 litres of heavy bunker oil were spilled, along with 88,000 litres of pole treating oil (PTO), used to treat utility poles. Within minutes of the derailment, much of the heavy oil had reached the lake and was spreading across the surface.

"The shores were black, the wildlife was covered in oil," said Doug Goss, whose family has owned a cabin beside the lake for over 40 years.

"It was horrifying."

A 'heated' time

As the spill spread across the lake, volunteers used booms to try to stop the slick from advancing, as well as cleaning oil-covered wildlife. The Alberta government soon put out a health warning, telling people to stay off the lake and to avoid using Wabamun water for drinking or watering gardens.

Doug Goss helped form a citizen committee to combat CN's "poor" response to the spill. He says the company eventually did clean up the lake and felt it fairly compensated cabin owners. (Emily Fitzpatrick/CBC)
Wabamun has long been a popular spot for fishing and boating in the province, with many family cabins having been passed down among generations. The people with cabins along Wabamun Lake felt a connection to the water, according to McDonald. And they became angry when they saw that threatened.

"The first few days were very heated for people, very emotional," she said.

Many people were angered by the way CN handled the disaster. Initially, the focus was put on stopping the spread of the bunker oil, which was highly visible on the lake. The company knew about the spill of toxic PTO by the afternoon of the spill — still, it wasn't until days later that the PTO spill, and the potential for health effects, were announced.

Days after the spill, residents of Wabamum Lake formed a blockade over the tracks, accusing CN of being more concerned with restoring rail service than stopping the spread of the oil. The blockade ended after the company promised to meet with the public.

Province unprepared for spill

The Wabamun Lake derailment revealed just how unprepared the province was for such a disaster. Despite an economy that relied heavily on the oil-and-gas industry, Alberta did not have booms to contain oil slicks in water. Instead, they had to be brought in from other areas.

A Transportation Safety Board report into the derailment found that CN did have an emergency plan to respond to the spill, but said it would have been more efficient if there was closer coordination with other agencies. It also said the Alberta government did not have an emergency management plan to deal with a spill of Wabamun's magnitude.

"I fault the province and I fault the railway because we didn't have a disaster plan in place," then-premier Ralph Klein said at the time of the spill.

"Unlike the coastal provinces, we don't have booms and we don't have things available because we never anticipated something of this nature ever happening,"

Rail cars leaked bunker fuel oil metres from summer homes bordering Lake Wabamun. (John Ulan/Canadian Press)
The report also found that the province did not dedicate all possible resources to the spill, in fear that doing so would hamstring its response if another disaster occurred elsewhere in the province.

Goss and others in the community banded together to create a citizens' committee in response to the spill. The group focused on making sure that the oil was cleaned up and that cabin owners were compensated. And, he said, to make sure that what happened in Wabamun didn't happen anywhere else.

"People came together just because they love this place, and they wanted to make sure it was fixed and fixed right," he said.

Workers removed the oil via vacuum trucks and by hand. Even so, the cleanup took years: while the lake was re-opened a year after the spill, the Alberta government was issuing health warnings about tar balls and oil sheen as recently as 2007.

In the end, CN estimates it spent $28 million on cleaning Wabamun Lake, on top of the $7.5 million in compensation it paid out to property owners. In 2009, the company was fined $1.4 million for its part in the disaster.

A lake's lasting legacy

At the time of the spill, Goss was a vocal critic of the company's "poor" response. But now, a decade later, he says Wabamun is healthy again. And he credits the company for eventually cleaning the water and providing what he sees as fair compensation.

Monitoring of the lake suggest it is doing well since the spill, but is still in need of protection. 

Goss sees a positive in the disaster — in 2006, the province established the Emergency Management Alberta agency in response to the spill. He also applauds stronger regulations for railways following this and other derailments.

Other residents are less optimistic. While the sheen is off the lake, Brenda McDonald says Wabamun has not fully recovered from what happened a decade ago.

"We can still walk in from this beach and come out with tar balls on our feet," she said.

"So you are always very careful about your belongings, your towels, the kids, you know, are they getting oil on their feet? Because a lot of it is still buried in the sand."

The CN tracks on the north side of Wabamun Lake are also still there, still used by trains carrying petroleum and other cargo west from Edmonton — a concern for McDonald and others on the lake who worry about the future of their lake.


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