Goldstream fuel-spill cleanup tab tops $2 million

The parent company of Columbia Fuels has spent more than $2 million to clean up a fuel spill into the Goldstream River after a tanker-truck crash on the Malahat in April 2011.

But despite extensive efforts, fuel remains trapped under the highway and in adjacent bedrock, the provincial Environment Ministry says.

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The amount that Parkland Fuels Corp. has spent on cleanup was revealed at a sentencing hearing for the tanker-truck driver.

Prosecutor John Blackman said the money was spent on emergency response, remediation and consultant fees to deal with the 43,000 litres of gasoline and 700 litres of diesel fuel that leaked from two tanks.

Former Columbia Fuels driver James Allan Smith, 35, of Nanaimo, received a three-month conditional sentence - which means no jail time if he abides by certain conditions - and a one-year driving prohibition after pleading guilty to dangerous driving and violating the Fisheries Act. He was also ordered to perform 200 hours of community service in fish conservation.

Witnesses said he was speeding and swerving before he crashed into a rock wall and the tankers flipped onto their sides.

Almost all the fuel in the tanks spilled out, Blackman said. It flowed from the drainage ditch adjacent to the highway and into the salmon river. An investigation by federal and provincial authorities found hundreds of juvenile salmon fry, trout and sculpin died.

"If there's a silver lining, gasoline evaporates very quickly," Blackman said. "As of July 2012, there were no detectable levels of fuel in Goldstream River."

Water quality in the river is back to safe levels, but a low-level environmental risk still exists at Goldstream, said Graham Knox, manager of the B.C. Ministry of the Environment's environmental emergency program.

An area of contaminated soil extends from the spill site under the highway, north to Finlayson Arm, Knox said.

The company has been removing contaminants using a process called vapour-barrier extraction and the contaminated area has been slowly shrinking - but it still exceeds provincial standards, he said.

The cleanup is complicated because the area is fractured bedrock and fuel has seeped into cracks. When rain falls, the level of ground water can rise and lift some of the trapped hydrocarbons. The worry is that the hydrocarbons could flow into the river.

"Usually, you can remove contaminants by digging everything up and hauling it away," Knox said. "That's very difficult in this location. If you dig up soil or clay, you know you're going to get it. Rock has to be blasted and you're going to create more cracks, which is going to drive the fuel further down. It's not a good solution."

The extraction process is working and likely will continue until early next year.

But the amount of vapour being captured is so small that it's outweighed by emissions from the diesel generators needed to run the system.

"Right now, there is a very low risk that any ongoing damage is occurring from the remaining contaminants. It's trapped under the road and in the ground, and not getting into the spawning habitat," Knox said.

There are still a lot of unanswered questions about the impact on the river, he added. "We don't necessarily know if Goldstream is back in the state it was before."

The ministry will have a better idea after fish runs this year and next, he said.

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