It’s one of the biggest oil spills in the history of Ontario.
On March 7, 2015 a Canadian National Railway (CN) train carrying crude oil from the Alberta oil sands derailed just outside the town of Gogama, ON spilling an estimated one million liters of crude oil onto the surrounding land and nearby Makami River.
Almost two years later, residents are finding dead fish and floating oil along the river and nearby water bodies and the smell of oil wafts across the derailment site.
The actual rail bed itself is still visibly soaked in oil.
Renowned environmentalist David Suzuki visited the spill site in November and commented that the spill was a “crime against mother earth” and that he was “amazed no one has gone to jail.”
CN’s most vocal critic has been local Gogama Fire Chief Mike Benson, who also happened to be the first responder on scene the night of the derailment.
Benson lives and works just minutes away from the spill site and has taken it upon himself to closely monitor CN’s cleanup and is in the unique position of being privy to behind-the-scenes information.
As local fire chief and assistant to the Ontario Fire Marshall Benson is part of a special Gogama spill-site science round table group made up of CN, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change (MOECC), the Ministry of Natural Resources and Fisheries (MNRF), as well as others.
In an exclusive interview, Benson recounts the dramatic experience of showing up to the accident in the middle of the night, as well outlines several problems he has with how CN and the MOECC are handling things.
Following Benson’s interview are responses from CN and the MOECC.
Mike, can you talk about what happened the night of the spill?
At 2:57 a.m. on the morning of the spill, dispatch had gotten a 911 call from the rail operator saying there was a train derailment three kilometers outside of Gogama. I was at home (in Gogama) when I got the phone call. The way our paging system works is they call me and if it’s outside the town of I determine whether to dispatch the rest of our team or not. I was going to take a drive down to the railway crossing where I suspected it was. I went out to my truck and before I could go anywhere I was sure it was something catastrophic. It was like daylight outside. Apparently the incident happened at 2:55 a.m. and I was outside by 2:58 a.m. and there was already exploding and shooting flames into he sky. The wall of flames was already 150 feet high and 600 feet wide. I couldn’t see the flames from my house but the sky was lit up bright orange. As soon as I got in my truck I called the dispatch back and told her to page the entire team and make sure everyone was responding and then drove out to the scene.
When you arrived on scene what did you see?
As I was driving up it got brighter and brighter. I got on site about seven minutes after the crash happened. I parked my vehicle approximately 300 metres away and started walking towards the scene. My captain, Mark Constantine, is an employee of CN and he attended about 30 seconds after I got there. He explained to me that this was a ‘unit train’ carrying bitumen oil. The rail cars were blowing up; torching 300 feet into the sky. Those were new oil cars with enhanced fancy end caps that they thought were going to replace older DOT-111 cars and prevent a spill if a derailment happens. The ends of these cars were blowing off like tin cans. We heard seven cars blow off in like an hour. When they blew it was the loudest noise you heard in your life. It was accompanied by heavy heavy black smoke. It was such a catastrophic thing.
It was very noisy, Mark and I had to put our heads together and yell at each other to talk. The very strong hot gaseous smell was incredible. Seven Gogama fire department men arrived on scene. Everyone (of the fire fighting team) put on their self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) right away. We went to the road bridge, approximately 60 meters from the derailment, and watched the cars explode and we saw very thick oil on top of the ice on fire with the flames coming towards us. There were at least two cars in the river and we saw, what we estimated at the time, to be ten to twelve full rail cars on fire. The oil ran down into the ice and was burning at the same time, which is surreal to actually see and it was really hot. It was scary to see how close it was getting to the road bridge, which is a very important bridge to this community. It ended up that the bridge wasn’t damaged at all but those flames were within a 100 feet of it.
There was so much going on. The fire and smoke around the burning cars themselves was creating their own weather system so the wind was calm where the fire was but everything else was very windy there. It got very hot very quickly. Just the visual of this 600 foot by 150 foot high wall of flame. It wasn’t just like a campfire it was a rolling flame and you could see a burst and you could see the gas burning and then the flames going down then another shot of gas going up and it exploding in the sky again. It was that bad for about 10-12 hours and then it subsided and, after the cars had all exploded, for the last two days, it was just burning off the fuel that was left inside the cars.
What did you do to put out the fire?
In the end we didn’t fight any of the fire on scene. The decision was made with CN to let it burn because the weather was such that the smoke and particulates in the air were blowing away from populated areas and that it was better to let the oil burn rather then run into the river.
You told me that you often still think about that day.
I still dream of it on a semi regular basis. Whenever I smell the bitumen (the oil smell on site) I get a bit of fear or panic and I get flashbacks. The hair stands up on my neck. Immediately I go back to that night just for a split second and I can see in my mind’s eye what was going on at three o’clock in the morning there. I have woken up in the middle of the night with cold sweats with what I saw there. I can tell you that in all my life experience I have never seen anything more terrifying than those moments standing on the bridge. I had a million things running through my mind. I felt safe myself but I was worried of course about my firefighters. Some of them didn’t have my SCBA on so I was worried about any aftereffects. But I think my biggest concern was the smoke billowing. As a firefighter I absolutely understand that smoke kills and carbon smoke kills quicker and worse than anything else. I was worried about the townsfolk. This derailment site is three kilometres down the road from Gogama but it’s less than a kilometre from town on the straight track.
You were in charge of the scene at first but then handed it over to CN who then began clean up efforts. You have been critical of these efforts. At what point did you start to get concerned about how they were handling things?
I wasn’t part of the cleanup but I was incident commander for first 11 days. I was in control of everything theoretically. If they wanted to do an operation they had to get my permission to do it.
For the first month after it happened I was following the cleanup but it seemed they were doing things how I would do it, systematically, so I wasn’t concerned. We were told these are the best biologists in the world by the MNRF and MOECC during our command meetings. They said that they don’t have the most qualified staff but that we should not worry because the employees that CN have are the best in the business.
I first got concerned around July this year. Since May 2016, local people have been posting videos where they drop a rock off the Bailey bridge and show the oil coming up. But I’m just the fire chief. I’m not an activist or an environmentalist. I was kind of waiting like everyone else for someone else to stand up. It wasn’t until the middle of July this year when CN said they had finished cleaning while at the same time we started getting reports of all these dead fish. CN are claiming all the fish are summer kill (a natural annual process that kills fish) but those fish are still showing up today (November 2016). Nobody can tell me that the water is too hot for them now. I spoke to people who are not employed by CN and they said the fish are dying because the oil is covering their gills and they can’t get oxygen. That is what every single biologist I spoke too said. I got concerned in July when I went to inspect the site and found out that there was no more cleaning going on.
You believe the water is still contaminated with oil and it is killing the fish?
Yes. The cars that were in river just stayed there (at the time of the derailment) and apparently this oil as soon as it comes into contact with soil, because of its chemical makeup will stick to it. CN argues that it doesn’t migrate, we argue it does migrate because there was no spill three kilometres down the river and yet we are finding oil there. I just know it’s there and I won’t drink this water. A lot of people won’t eat the fish. I will not let my grand children play in the water. I’ve received at least two-dozen complaints from citizens saying there was oil at the beach in Gogama (on Minisinakwa Lake). People have told me stories of their toddlers coming out of the water, their legs all red and greasy.
We had been saving dead fish in the fridge at the fire stations so that they can be tested but we are going to dispose of those and stop collecting for now. If we get more fish, we’ve been told to contact the MOECC. We were told that if we touch the fish, the chain of custody will be broken and those fish then can’t be used as evidence of oil pollution in the river.
Unfortunately, we’ve tried to call the MOECC three or four times and no one has come to pick up the fish when we did. We kept getting various excuses like the person was off that day or it was the weekend and no one was available, call us back if it’s still there on Monday. They don’t seem to have the staff to take care of this.
But there is no conclusive evidence the fish are dying from oil contamination?
Neither of the MNRF, MOECC, or CN are saying the fish are dying from oil. They are still saying they are dying as part of the summer kill. The river was 6.1 degrees this week (in early November) and we’re still finding fish. However, it’s been 19 months and not one single fresh fish has been tested for mortality. They’ve been sent in but the labs couldn’t properly test because they’ve been frozen.
What are some of your concerns over how CN has handled this?
The Ministry of Environment and CN, back in June, decided that the river is clean, that the site is clean, and so CN left. We started getting local reports in the middle of July of enormous amounts of dead fish and oil slicks on the river and lake. As the only government authority in town of course I got all the phone calls – maybe 1600 between July and November of this year. I started going out to the site to inspect what was going on. The site was closed to the public but as assistant to the Ontario Fire Marshal I can go as I please as any time. CN did try to stop me at one time but (I believe) when they found out I could have them arrested for impeding me they got very nice.
CN opened the main road in November 2015 but the site remained closed to the public until August 2016. It’s still marked as a construction area with no trespassing signs, etc. They actually had security there to make sure nobody could go on the scene. The scene got open because we met with Transport Minister Marc Garneu and he opened the scene to the public.
So besides the river and the lake, you say the main site is still contaminated with oil?
Yes, the soil on the site is still contaminated. They remediated and removed something like 40,000 metric tons of soil (actual figure, according to a remediation report, was 75,211 metric tons) and shipped it away to a contaminated materials site in Cartier, Ontario. They used the native material from the area to put another cover on the site so that it seems like it is just nice clean soil. But I can tell you, they planted everything in June, and nothing is growing.
Walking on scene on September 29 I could smell of what I thought was oil in the air and after walking around the site for about an hour my shoes smelt of oil for days after. The CN tour guides said they could not smell it but after touching patches of water with what CN calls sheen my hand also smelt of oil. What do you think?
If you say you smell oil CN will tell you you’re nuts and that there is no oil there and someone is playing games with you. I’m not joking.
Underneath the train tracks, on CN controlled federal land, there is still oil seeping out of the ground. The MOECC have said they have said they are not in charge of regulating what goes on on that land. CN admits they have not fully cleaned this up but say they have prevented this from spreading into the surrounding environment with absorbent barriers. What do you think of this?
It’s a matter of money it’s all it is. To clean that would entail stopping the train again and removing the tracks. The oil is very far down there, maybe 12 or 14 feet. It would take weeks to dig it out properly, put material back, and have it packed so you could run a 5000 ton train over it without the train going in the river again. Plus, they know, and they’ve told me, nobody can make them do anything so why would they spend money on something they don’t have to? These are not star environmentalists by any means, I’ll tell you that.
That oil is being saturated in the soil, getting in the water table and spreading all throughout the entire area again. Good proof of that is the swamp right next to the hill between the rail bridge and the road bridge. It’s been declared 100 per cent rehabilitated. They took out 12 feet of contaminated material and put in 12 feet of new material and to this day you can throw a rock in, disturb the water and swamp bed, and oil will rise up. That oil can only be coming from the rail bed.
It could be argued that you are almost single-handedly taking CN to task for how they’ve handled this. Is it hard going up against such a powerful company?
After being critical of them I wasn’t exactly threatened but I’ve been told 15 times by them how powerful they are. They’ve said ‘we are a corporation that looks after ourselves, we do whatever we have to do to make sure our company is protected.’
(In my opinion) river is contaminated for three kilometres. You can take your paddle, give it a twist, and oil still comes up. Before the water froze this year in December we were still finding slicks all up and down the river and connected waterways. Just last week (mid December) a slick was reported by a cottage owner 45 km from the derailment site.
This is the biggest oil spill in Ontario’s history, and the worst one in terms of its environmental damage as far as I’m aware. I can’t believe this spill isn’t better known amongst the general population.
CN, MOECC, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and other involved groups were contacted to get a response to Benson.
Do these groups believe that the fish that have washed up in the Makami River died because of oil contamination?
CN wrote that they are “well aware of reports of dead fish observed in the lake” from late summer and fall 2016 however they say the likely cause of this is seasonal high temperatures, or “summer kill”, rather than oil contaminants.
Because of observed higher water temperatures and because dead fish were not observed year round, the MOECC stated they think the ‘summer kill’ explanation is a possibility.
Since the derailment, the MOECC and MNRF have conducted two fish assessments testing 182 samples in October 2015, and another sample in September 2016.
Furthermore they tested 12 fish (ones that Benson says were dripping with spilt crude oil based on his discussions with clean up workers) immediately after the spill as well as collected dead fish from residents.
No results show unhealthy contamination in fish populations or indicate that crude oil contaminants killed any fish.
Benson said CN’s leading role in the cleanup meant a conflict of interest and that there was a further conflict of interest because CN picked and paid for their own third-party scientists.
CN said everything they do is overseen and has to meet up to MOECC and other agency standards and that using third party contractors that only tell them what they want to hear is just bad for business.
“(Contracted labs, etc.) don’t just want CN’s business, they want business from other companies and agencies. (Besides) everything is done under the scrutiny of regulatory authorities,” said Feeney. “If there was any question of the results we would have to do it again, which would mean severe costs, and there would also be penalties.”
While the MOECC is in charge of the spill, they say they have not ordered CN to do anything differently then CN has proposed.
Although given several opportunities to clarify their position, CN would not answer why they chose to clean up the rail bed at a slower rate than the rest of the site, however the MOECC did make a comment.
“The rail bed is currently in use and presents unique challenges to the company as standard clean-up methods cannot be used,” wrote MOECC spokesperson Gary Wheeler.
A May 2016 report put out by GHD reads “not all product could be removed from beneath the rail bed due to future soil stability issues related to operation of the rail line and the construction of the new rail bridge. Accordingly, an unknown volume of oil remains under the rail bed in the source area.”
According to CN’s public information website, original plans to finish site clean up were in Spring of 2016.
In June 2016 it looked to Benson like CN were ready to pack up but however after more environmental testing and public pressure, quite possibly because of efforts spearheaded by Benson, CN completed a new round of river vacuuming in November 2016.
After this round of vacuuming CN have not announced plans to further their cleanup efforts however both CN and the MOECC say they will continue to monitor the site.
The incident is still under investigation by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.
(The included interview with Mike Benson was synthesized from several phone and in-person conversations that took place over a few months and it was edited for clarity and length. Benson makes the claim that it is the “biggest” oil spill in Ontario. Whether or not this oil spill actually invovled more litres of oil – if that is what Benson is saying- than any other oil spill in Ontario could not be resolutely verified however no information was found to contradict this by the time of publication.)
In August 2017, after a more than two-year investigation, the Transportation Safety Board released findings stating that the derailment occurred due to undetected defect — described as an internal ‘vertical split head’ — following a track repair three days prior to the derailment.
A TSB news release stated:
‘The TSB investigation showed that CN’s procedures for rail testing and installing a plug rail were located in multiple manuals, making them difficult to find. In addition, employees were not given checklists, which could have outlined the steps required to complete the work. The employee was aware of the dye penetrant test, but had not performed it or seen it done during the course of his duties. CN’s training did not highlight the importance of the test, nor did it provide opportunities for practical hands-on training.’