In addition to the human deathtoll from the disaster in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec—which local officials say is almost sure to rise—fears over the ecological destruction caused by Saturday's oil train derailment and explosion are also beginning to emerge.
While Quebec's emergency management agency has confirmed that both Lac-Megantic itself and the Chaudière River have both been contaminated by the spill, Canadian environmental groups are warning that the impact on the region's water and air quality could be impacted for years to come.
The spilled oil and other toxins contained within it, says Greenpeace Canada's Keith Stewart, will create lasting pain for the region.
"It gets into the ecosystem, it gets into the water, it gets into the soil," he told the Montreal Gazette. "Depending on the amount of oil spilled, the effects can be big, and they can mitigate the damage but not get rid of them entirely.”
In this case, because of the fires and amount of fuel that was burned, a large concern is the air pollutants that were created.
In fact, it is the fires that have delayed the cleanup so far, making the long-term impacts possibly much worse.
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“The longer term impacts are effects on water and on soil, which are hard to clean up, and normally you want to clean them up as soon as possible to reduce damage," Stewart explained.
One of the lingering unknowns, says Stewart, is exactly what kind of oil the train cars were carrying.
“If it’s (heavy oil) bitumen, it sinks so you actually have to go down to the riverbed, but if it’s light crude, it will float and you can [try to] skim it off the top,” Stewart said.
“We suspect that the oil is coming from North Dakota, and that would means it’s shale oil,” said Steven Guilbeault, co-founder and deputy director of the Quebec-based group Équiterre. “It’s not the oil people are used to. Beyond that, (it’s a question of whether) it’s light crude or heavy crude. ... Depending on the type of crude oil, the environmental impacts, safety issues, decontamination issues are very different because of what’s in the oil.”
As was the case regarding recent oil spills in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Mayflower, Arkansas—both of which involved Canadian tar sands oil—these heavier crudes prove much more difficult to clean up, especially when they enter bodies of water.
“Typically what they have to do is try to scoop it up out of the water and dig up the soil that’s been contaminated and they can never get all of it," said Guibeault. "It gets into the ecosystem, it gets into the water, it gets into the soil. Depending on the amount of oil spilled, the effects can be big, and they can mitigate the damage but not get rid of them entirely.”