Pierre Grenier says that ever since the 2013 train derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que. spilled 100,000 litres of crude oil into the Chaudière River, fishing hasn’t been the same.
Anglers like him are catching fewer fish, and their catches are increasingly adult fish — a sign that fewer fish are being born. The fish, Grenier said, “don’t bite like they used to.”
Experts with Quebec’s Environment Department will be deployed in the coming weeks to study the river’s rehabilitation since a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded 10 years ago, killing 47 people and destroying parts of downtown. The department says it will analyze the levels of hydrocarbons in river sediments, the health of animals that live on the riverbed and the overall state of fish populations.
Grenier, president of Lac-Mégantic’s association of hunters and anglers, says his group has helped the province maintain the health of the region’s fish stocks by introducing new species into Lake Mégantic, which feeds the Chaudière River. But, he said, stocking the lake hasn’t had the desired effect.
“We stocked brown trout four years after the disaster, but anglers aren’t catching them,” he said. “Is the water suitable for the feeding and reproduction of fish? If it’s contaminated, we need to know.”
Grenier pointed to the location of the spill, where the lake drains into the river.
“Right here, the water was full of oil, and it was flowing down into the Chaudière River. Have any toxins remained throughout the lake?” he asked, adding that he hopes the upcoming Environment Department studies will answer that question.
In 2015, a summary report from the Environment Department concluded fish caught at multiple stations along the river showed more deformities and other anomalies than in any other river in the province.
The last study by the provincial government on the effects of the oil spill in the waterway dates back to 2017. Government experts offered at that time a “reassuring” assessment of the health of the fish stock, despite a persistently high rate of anomalies.
“The fish integrity index has not improved, and the percentage of fish exhibiting anomalies (deformities, fin erosion, injuries, and tumours) which was very high in 2014, remained equally high in 2016,” the researchers said in the 2017 study, adding that there was “no comparison” between these elevated rates of anomalies and what existed before the spill.
But the study also said sediments in the lake and river had low concentrations of pollutants and “did not warrant decontamination efforts.” Oil-contaminated sediments “do not accumulate in the flesh of fish,” which are safe to eat, the researchers said.
It was recommended new studies be conducted before 2022, but for various reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been delayed, government spokesman Frédérick Fournier said. Results from this summer’s studies on the lake and the river should be published next year, he added.
Back in July 2013, it took 30,000 litres of fire-retardant foam to extinguish the flames caused by the explosion. The foam contained perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS or “forever chemicals.”
Knowledge about these chemicals has significantly evolved in recent years, and they are now under scrutiny by Environment Canada. A draft report by the federal department, published in May, proposes concluding that “all substances in the class of PFAS have the potential to cause harm to both the environment and human health.”
Studies by the provincial Environment Department immediately after the Lac-Mégantic derailment concluded that there was no evidence the disaster led to a rise in the levels of PFAS in fish.
But Céline Guéguen, a Université de Sherbrooke chemistry professor, says the presence of those chemicals should be re-evaluated in the lake and in the river. “Ten years ago, we knew that forever chemicals existed, but we may not have had the technology to measure them accurately,” she said.
Guéguen belongs to a group of researchers seeking funding to assess the contamination of the water 10 years after the spill. “We aim to contribute to improving knowledge about the health of the lake,” she said. “If multiple experts delve into these questions, it can only be beneficial for the environment.”
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