Nearly a year and a half later: Here’s why Gogama’s Makami River ‘will never be pristine again’

Repost from CBC News

Here’s why Gogama’s Makami River ‘will never be pristine again’

Small town pushing Ministry of the Environment to require CN to continue clean-up
By CBC News, Aug 10, 2016 7:33 AM ET
Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson stands by the bridge over the Makami River where an oil train burst into flames in March 2015.
Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson stands by the bridge over the Makami River where an oil train burst into flames in March 2015. (Erik White/CBC )

The fencing around the site of the Gogama train derailment is coming down today, as the clean-up from the oil spill has been declared complete. But residents say their local waters are still contaminated with oil.

Sheens of oil are commonly seen on the Makami River, over which the oil train derailed in March 2015, as well as lake Minisinakwa, on which the town is built.

People have also found several dead fish in recent weeks and wondered if it’s connected to the spill.

“I understand it’s never going to be pristine again,” says Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson. “There was no sheen, there was no dead fish, there was no oil spill on Mar. 6, 2015.”

“So, we got to try to get it closer than that. Let’s get it to the point that there’s no fish dying. And I’m not going to die of throat cancer in five years because I’ve been eating the fish out of this lake.”

Benson said CN rail is willing to continue the clean-up, but has been told by the Ministry of Environment that the work is satisfactory.

CN has agreed to let more soil samples be taken from the site and be sent away for independent testing, along with some of the dead fish, at the company’s expense.

In a statement the railroad said that “CN recognizes that local citizens have identified areas of concern, where they believe further clean up should be done in order to protect human and fish populations. CN is today on the ground in Gogama, working with local residents to identify specific areas.”

Gogama derailment site
After a year and a half, the fencing around the site of the train derailment and oil spill near Gogama will come down and it will once again be open to the public. (Erik White/CBC )

Benson said he was surprised to find out over the last year and a half that the railroad was responsible for the environment testing, not the Ministry of the Environment.

“I can’t believe our government tells the fox to test the chickens,” Benson told a public meeting of over 100 people at the Gogama Community Centre, which ministry officials were invited to attend.

“Because that’s basically what they were doing. They were saying ‘OK, you got a mess. Tell us when it’s clean.'”​

Benson said Ministry of Environment officials are aware of the oil slicks in the water, but don’t seem concerned.

“We were going down the lake and we saw oil and he said ‘Well, just because there’s oil doesn’t mean it’s necessarily dangerous,” he said.

Ministry officials may not have been at the meeting on Tuesday night, but they were in Gogama the following day to take water samples on Lake Minisinakwa.

In a statement, the ministry said it “takes the concerns expressed by the citizens of Gogama and Mattagami First Nation very seriously and greatly appreciates direct reports from the citizens of their observations.  These reports enable our staff to respond in a timely manner to collect further information that can be used in guiding further action as appropriate.”

The ministry statement also said that further fish testing in the Gogama area is planned for the fall, but reiterated that the fish tested last fall showed no signs of contamination.

oil sheen in Makami River
Gogama residents regularly see oil floating in the Makami River and other waters downstream from the oil spill. (Erik White/CBC )

Band councillor suggests a protest to shut down the railroad

CN officials had planned to attend the meeting, but were called away at the last minute.

After expressing their frustrations for over an hour, the crowd erupted in applause, when Chad Boissoneau suggested that one way to get attention would be to “shut down” the railroad with a protest.

He is a band councillor in the nearby Mattagami First Nation and has headed up efforts to keep up in the pickerel population in area lakes.

“The clean-up shouldn’t be determined by what MOE feels is satisfactory, the clean-up should be determined by the community members and what’s satisfactory to them. Because we’re the ones that have to live here,” says Boissoneau, adding that oil has yet to be sighted in the waters by the first nation, which is downstream from the spill.

Several people from Timmins, which draws its drinking water from the Mattagami River downstream from the spill, also attended the meeting and there was mention of how these waters run all the way to the James Bay Coast.

public meeting
Over 100 people attended a public meeting at the Gogama Community Centre on Aug. 9 to express their frustrations with the oil clean-up. (Erik White/CBC )

Towards the end of the meeting there was talk of circulating a petition that Nickel Belt MPP France Gelinas could table at Queen’s Park and including these downstream communities.

Gelinas said until now people in Gogama were always hesitant to draw too much attention to the oil spill, fearing it would hurt the local tourism industry. But many lodges are reporting a drop in business anyway.

“There was always this reluctance to talk about it too much outside of Gogama,” she says.

It’s hard to get Toronto politicians to care about a little town called Gogama

“If you’re ready to sound the alarm bells, I have no doubt that the people from Sudbury will support you, the people from Timmins will support you and the people from everywhere in Ontario will support you if you’re ready to reach out and speak loud.”

Gelinas said she too has had trouble getting government officials to give time to the concerns of a small town called Gogama.

“If this environmental disaster had happened closer to Toronto, things would have been handled very differently,” she said at the meeting.

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