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Fuel spill's impact on salmon may not be known for years

Dennis Thomas, a member of the Esquimalt First Nation, continues his family's ancient cultural tradition as he hauls 12 large salmon on his fishing spear in the Goldstream River on Sunday October 24, 2004.

Deddeda Stemler/ The Canadian Press/Deddeda Stemler/ The Canadian Press

A fuel company will be responsible for cleaning up a massive spill of more than 40,000 litres of diesel and gasoline dumped in the middle of one of British Columbia's most popular provincial parks, but Environment Minister Terry Lake said it is too early to decide if the company will be charged.

Goldstream Park attracts tens of thousands of visitors each fall for the annual salmon run. The spill on Saturday likely killed thousands of juvenile fish that have not yet made their way to the Pacific.

Mr. Lake said it is upsetting that a major spill took place in a "treasured" park. "We have to do an adequate cleanup and hold the parties responsible," he said. "If it looks like there is a problem with the road, with the type of traffic, hopefully we will take some lessons from that."

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The driver of the Columbia Fuels tanker truck that lost control and slammed into a rock face on Saturday evening was arrested on suspicion of impaired driving, according to West Shore RCMP. That investigation is underway.

That legal process will need to be completed, Mr. Lake said, before the ministry can determine the company's liability. He said the ministry is working with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, local first nations that have fishing rights on the river and other agencies to put together a remediation plan that Columbia Fuels is required to implement.

The long-term impact of the toxic spill may not be realized for years, when the salmon fry now in the river are expected to return to spawn.

The accident opened large holes in the tanker's compartments, spilling as much as 42,000 litres of gas and 700 litres of diesel. The fuel flowed into a ditch that leads into the river, which empties into a slow-moving estuary. Gas is immediately toxic to aquatic life, but evaporates over a period of 18 hours. Diesel is slower to break down, although some has been recovered from the soil at the site.

Chum, coho and Chinook salmon, as well as steelhead and cutthroat trout, can be found in Goldstream River, and biologists are also concerned about animals that feed on the fish. The estuary is home to ducks, kingfishers and bald eagles, as well as minks, raccoons and bears.

"Our concern is they consume the dead fish," said Graham Knox, manager of environmental emergencies for the Ministry of Environment. "Hopefully there won't be significant toxins passed on through the food chain." He said even by Monday, there was still a strong fuel odour in the air and pockets of residue trapped under the rocks.

Andrea Voysey, director of marketing for Columbia Fuels, said the company has been moving quickly to contain and clean up the spill.

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"People are obviously very concerned - as are we- about the environment impact," she said. "We are bringing in experts to make sure the cleanup is done."

She said the public has responded favorably to the company's decision to offer compensation to motorists who faced lengthy delays on the highway that cuts through the park. The highway is a major artery on Vancouver Island, and it took 22 hours to reopen.

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom announced a review on Tuesday of how the highway closure was handled.

The driver has been suspended by the company pending the police investigation. He also faces charges for assault of a police officer.

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B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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