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Gogama train derailments: Questions linger one year later

A year ago today, a train pulling oil tankers burst into flames near the small northern Ontario town of Gogama — and most of the questions around what caused the derailment, and how much the oil spill damaged the environment, are still being asked.

Derailment still under investigation by Transportation Safety Board, Environment Canada

Several tanker cars caught fire after a Canadian National Railway train carrying crude oil derailed in northern Ontario 0:58

A year ago today, a train pulling oil tankers burst into flames near the small northern Ontario town of Gogama — and most of the questions around what caused the derailment, and how much the oil spill damaged the environment, are still being asked.

Gogama's volunteer fire chief Mike Benson was the first person to see the fiery crash on the banks of the Makami River. 
An aerial eastward view on March 7, 2015, of a CN train derailment site near Gogama. Here a few submerged tank cars can be seen. (Transportation Safety Board)

A year ago, he had nothing but praise for CN Rail and the company's handling of the disaster, but that has changed.

He says the railroad never sent his firefighters for specialized training, as promised and have kept people from seeing the derailment site.

"Now that's bred all kinds of rumours and innuendo and built a serious, serious mistrust of CN's handling of the clean-up of the spill," Benson said.

CN Rail spokesman Jim Feeny says the restricted access was done in the name of public safety, not secrecy.
Gogama volunteer fire chief Mike Benson was the first person on the scene of the derailment fire. (Erik White/CBC)

He says that, while some individuals in Gogama may be suspicious of CN, he believes that's an isolated view.

"That relationship remains strong. We have followed their counsel," said Feeny.

The derailment on March 7 came just three weeks after another CN train also hauling oil tankers burst into flames in Regan Township, just 14 km away.

The Transportation Safety Board is still investigating, but has said that track conditions may be a factor.

'River water is clean'

Environment Canada is also investigating the impact the oil spill has had on local waters and the fish who live in them.

But Jim Feeny says testing from CN and government officials have had nothing but good news.

"The results show that the lake is clean, the river water is clean," he said.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment says 4.2 million litres of oily water has been removed from area waters, while CN says most of the contaminated soil has been trucked away, work it plans on finishing up in the spring.

But locals in Gogama say it will likely be years before they know the affect on the pickerel population and the tourism industry that depends on it.

General store owner Rick Duguay says there were far fewer fishing tourists this summer coming in to buy bait and other supplies. 

"We are running on tourism. We don't have much else," he said. 

"Damage has been done into the river system. I think time will tell on what's going to happen. I really think that [the past] year [has produced] very little information for us to tell what's going to happen to this small community."

CN spokesman Jim Feeny says it's best to wait for investigators to do their job to determine why yet another CN train jumped the tracks near Gogama, Ont. (Erik White/CBC)

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