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'Who's fighting for Mother Nature?' David Suzuki tours Gogama CN train derailment site

Environmentalist David Suzuki visited the site of last year's CN train derailment in Gogama, Ont., on Friday, putting pressure on the rail company to ensure a river in the area is cleared of oil — no matter what the cost.

Oil sheen present in Makami River even though most CN test results meet provincial standards

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      Environmentalist David Suzuki visited the site of last year's CN train derailment in Gogama, Ont., on Friday, putting pressure on the rail company to ensure a river in the area is cleared of oil — no matter what the cost.

      "I'm amazed no one has gone to jail," Suzuki said. "This is a crime against the earth."

      Suzuki is studying the effect oil transportation is having on the environment and communities.

      He was recruited by Ontario's NDP to help the citizens of Gogama and the nearby Mattagami First Nation

      "This is a tragedy," Suzuki said.

      "It seems to me that we've somehow have to come together and the problem is who's fighting for Mother Nature?"

      More ministerial intervention needed, Suzuki says

      In March 2015, several CN Rail cars exploded, spilling more than one million litres of oil into the Makami River.

      The cause of the incident is still under investigation by the Transportation Safety Board, as is another CN train derailment that happened near Gogama just a few weeks prior. 

      The railroad initially sent crews to dredge the waterway. 

      By last summer, CN announced most of the site met standards set by Ontario's Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. 

      But those test results did not satisfy the public.

      "Just because science says that it's safe, doesn't mean that it's safe," said Gogama's fire chief Mike Benson.

      "Our area might not be as poisoned as it was before. But if it's [oil] not removed, the poisoning is going to continue here and four kilometres down the river and 800 kilometres into James Bay."

      The findings did not impress Suzuki either. 

      "The minute you have CN funding the research that's going on or the studies that are going on, there's an immediate question how valid that is," Suzuki said.

      "I think we need much more ministerial intervention. . . That seems to be missing here."

      'More harm than good' to dredge entire river

      CN took 29 more tests of the water in September. It found 26 of the sites did not present a risk to the environment, but three areas came in slightly above regulatory limits.

      "There are people in the community that wanted us to dredge like all this area," said CN's director of public and government affairs Jim Feeny.

      "The problem with that was if you go in there for sediment levels that are below standard, you're going to cause a lot of environmental damage because there are fish in there, there's ground, there's rock. 

      "If you clean the whole thing out, you're going to do more harm than good."

      CN decided to take a different approach to cleaning, Feeny said, by blocking off three sections of the waterway with booms, vacuuming sediment to clear it of oil and put clean water back into the river.  

      "It's not really an oil any more," Feeny said. "It's a component of oil. A chemical component of oil."

      The railroad has been working at the site for almost two weeks

      A salamander habitat has also been created, according to Feeny, and about five acres of land have been blocked off to allow vegetation to regrow.

      'Please don't say that this is clean'

      Still, a rainbow-coloured sheen of oil can be seen in areas of the river that are declared safe. 

      "When people see sheen, when they see something that reminds them of what they've been through, it's going to cause concern," Feeny said.

      "Will it ever be completely gone? Yes, but I can't say when."

      Suzuki's tour of the derailment site Friday lasted about an hour. There were some heated exchanges. 

      "Please don't say that this is clean. This stuff is going to last for a long time in here," Suzuki told a CN Rail official about the river. 

      "They don't care about First Nations. This is about money," said Mattagami First Nation Chief Walter Naveau. 

      "It should be about that water. That living water. That spirit water that we use in ceremonies."

      CN vows to stay 'as long as we have to'

      After the visit, Suzuki spoke at Gogama's community centre and heard from people in the crowd who are still shaken from the oil spill.

      Suzuki then spent the night in Mattagami First Nation, where he was presented with a blue stitched blanket to thank him for advocating for the water.

      Suzuki said he wants to meet with CN officials again to discuss Gogama's situation in more detail. 

      "The reality is, we've got to look to a time when there won't be accidents like this because we won't be transporting bitumen by rail or pipeline."

      CN plans to finish vacuuming sediment in the river by December, according to Feeny. Monitoring will take place over the winter and booms are expected to be re-installed to do further testing by spring.

      "We'll be here as long as we have to," Feeny said. "I think all that we can do it just keep on be[ing] present.

      "Do the work that we're doing now, show people what we're doing and present information out to the public so they can make their own decisions on how they feel about it."

      About the Author

      Olivia Stefanovich

      Reporter

      Olivia Stefanovich is a network reporter for CBC News based in Toronto. She previously worked in Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter @CBCOlivia. Send story ideas to olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.