Malahat fuel spill kills off thousands of salmon

The fuel spill on the Malahat Highway north of Victoria has killed thousands of fish, including juvenile salmon, and the driver of the truck is now under investigation for assaulting a police officer.

An estimated 42,000 litres of gasoline and more than 3,100 litres of diesel fuel spilled into the Goldstream River on Saturday when a Columbia Fuels tanker-truck and trailer drove into a rock wall and flipped on its side.

Graham Knox, the manager of environmental emergencies for B.C.'s Ministry of Environment, said cleanup crews are gathering the dead fish from the river and digging up contaminated soil.

"I was out there today and there's still a strong odour of gasoline. When we're moving rocks or gravel in the stream we're seeing a little bit and some increased odour," he said on Monday.

Knox said workers are also gathering water samples and removing contaminated soil along the river.

"With gasoline. It's one of those products that's very toxic. But if there is any silver lining to this, [it's] the fact that this material will naturally break down fairly rapidly.

"That will continue to break down and we'll have to look at whether there are any measures we can do to help that along without causing further damage to the river and all the other parts of the ecosystem."

Allie Roberts, the naturalist at Goldstream Provincial Park, said the impact on the salmon run will be felt for years.

"The river is so close to the highway, and pairing it with the time of year that we're in right now, as far as the life cycle of the salmon, it is just a disaster," she said.

Knox said Columbia Fuels is paying for the cleanup and will be working with various ministries, First Nations and local organizations on a long-term plan.

B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake said the province will play an active role in the cleanup of the massive gas spill on the Malahat. He said it has staff on site, and several groups will be consulted on the remediation including the DFO and local First Nations.

But Rob Fleming, the MLA for Victoria-Swan Lake, said he's concerned that the owner of the truck that crashed, Columbia Fuels, is directing the cleanup rather than just footing the bill.

Fleming also said he believes cuts to staffing and funding at the provincial Ministry of Environment in recent years have left it without the proper resources to oversee the cleanup.

"This is probably going to take the better part of a year to clean up. It's going to need active monitoring through the estuary and throughout Goldstream Park and it's going to need regular reporting. And I think the public wants and deserves that from the Ministry of the Environment," said Fleming.

Meanwhile, police said the driver of the truck is under investigation for impaired driving and assaulting an officer during his arrest on Saturday following the crash.

The unidentified 33-year-old Nanaimo man was released from custody and is scheduled to appear in court in June. Police said the officer was not hurt in the incident.

The crash closed the Malahat Highway for 24 hours as crews rushed to clean up the spilled fuel, blocking the only route between Victoria and the rest of the island.

Columbia Fuels has promised to pay any affected travellers for legitimate expenses they may have incurred as a result of the road closure.

The company has set up a hotline for claims that will be handled by an adjudicator. The number is (250) 391-3611 or you can email malahat@columbiafuels.com.

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