Experts, authorities address Kingston train derailment environmental impacts

One of the five derailed train cars that crashed into the marshlands just north of Bath Road on Friday, May 5, 2023, sits on the tracks at Invista after being lifted back onto the tracks and transported from the derailment site. What appears to be a “bung patch” of natural materials and absorbants has been used to plug up the site of a potential leak on the tanker, which was carrying hexamethylenediamine. Submitted photo.

On Friday, May 5, 2023, a train derailment just north of Bath Road in central Kingston resulted in the closure of that major thoroughfare in the city. But what else has resulted from the incident?

As CN Rail crews continue efforts to clean up the derailment, authorities have already confirmed that the train was transporting hexamethylenediamine, an organic compound often used in the manufacturing of plastics, as well as adipic acid, a solid, powdered industrial product which is commonly used in food, but also used in nylon production. Hexamethylenediamine is considered hazardous – the compound is corrosive to skin and eyes and can lead to tightness in breathing – while adipic acid can cause mild skin irritation on contact but is not considered hazardous.

According to CN, one of the cars carrying adipic acid did sustain a leak as a result of the derailment, which has since been controlled. In total, “five litres or less” of the substance was able to leak into the marshland area before the leak was stopped up. However, both CN and the City of Kingston have indicated that the leak did not pose any threat to public safety, wildlife, or water.

But what happened next may have a substantial impact on the many species that call the area home. By late Friday night*, CN had numerous dump trucks of gravel delivered to the site. This gravel was poured into/onto the marshland in order to create a causeway, or access route, from Bath Road to the actual site of the derailment, where the rail bridge had collapsed under the train above it. Literal tonnes of gravel were used to create this land bridge of sorts; however, CN has not responded to inquiries regarding the exact amount of the infill used, nor the exact makeup of it.

Loads of what appears to be gravel were brought in and poured into the area to allow cleanup operations to take place following the Friday, May 5, 2023, train derailment. Photo by Kathleen Lizotte.

It is important to understand the biological makeup of the area. Technically, the land where the derailment occurred is owned by CN, according to the City and the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority (CRCA). However, it abuts Marshlands Conservation Area, a CRCA conservation area, as well as the Little Cataraqui Creek, which flows out to Lake Ontario along almost the same route as the spur line that services rail traffic to Invista – the same spur line where the bridge collapse and derailment occurred.

In fact, the Little Cataraqui Creek runs all the way from the Little Cataraqui Creek Conservation area through Kingston, with CRCA-owned and -protected lands surrounding it for most of its length.

Map of the Little Cataraqui Creek Watershed, showing CRCA-owned lands from north of Highway 401 south to Lake Ontario, including both Little Cataraqui Creek and Marshlands Conservation Areas. Graphic via CRCA’s Little Cataraqui Creek Conservation Area Masterplan.

“The land acquisition for the area includes all the floodplain and wetlands along the main branch of the Little Cataraqui Creek between Lake Ontario and Little Cataraqui Creek Conservation Area, which is located north of Highway 401. Currently, Cataraqui Conservation owns most of the east side of Little Cataraqui Creek between King and Princess Streets,” CRCA states in its overview of Marshlands Conservation Area.

“We also own some land along the west side of the creek as well as a small piece of land at the corner of Portsmouth Avenue and John Counter Boulevard. Two other public landowners, the City of Kingston and the Correctional Service of Canada, own significant amounts of floodplain and wetland areas along Little Cataraqui Creek.”

Accessible only through the trailhead off King Street West alongside Cataraqui Golf and Country Club, Marshlands Conservation Area serves as Kingston’s main access point to the Rideau Trail. Much of the lands are not accessible, but there are some rough trails carved throughout it. The Conservation Authority notes that with Marshland Conservation Area, “the focus is on land preservation as opposed to recreation, although the trails are ideal for nature lovers, especially those enjoying the cool breezes coming off the river and its tributaries in the summer,” and that “the wetland and forested areas of Marshlands provide many opportunities for wildlife viewing and nature appreciation. The area’s rich biodiversity is evident, and glimpses of Barred Owls are always a highlight.”

The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks (MECP) indicated immediately following the derailment that “CN Rail is the responsible party and has retained a cleanup contractor and environmental consultant,” both of whom arrived on scene at the incident the same day it occurred.

“Currently, there is no known threat to human health and no expected impacts to drinking water. The Ministry has notified the municipality and their water plants as a precaution. The Kingston Fire Department has deployed booms at the outlet to Lake Ontario,” MECP said in response to Kingstonist inquiries.

“Ministry environmental officers are at the site to assess environmental conditions and follow up with the parties involved to ensure that all appropriate steps are being taken to contain any spilled material and mitigate any environmental impacts.”

With CN, the City of Kingston, and MECP all expressing little concern for the environmental impacts as a result of the derailment, Kingstonist reached out to CRCA.

“Cataraqui Conservation is aware of the recent train derailment that occurred within a wetland north of Bath Road on Little Cataraqui Creek in Kingston. We were notified by CN Rail and the various agencies involved of the derailment and emergency efforts over the weekend to remove the derailed cars and stabilize the site,” CRCA said in response.

“Cataraqui Conservation does not own the property where the derailment occurred, and ongoing work is taking place to repair the tracks. We also note that matters relating to spills and/or contamination are under the jurisdiction of other agencies, including the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. As a regulatory authority responsible for regulating alterations to wetlands and waterbodies, our main involvement is to ensure work and restoration efforts will not adversely impact the hydrologic function of the wetland in this area and will not impact the hydrology and hydraulics of Little Cataraqui Creek,” the Conservation Authority continued.

“To this end, we are actively involved in the review of proposed short-term and long-term solutions that will hopefully prevent future derailments in this location while maintaining the integrity of the wetland and flow of Little Cataraqui Creek in this location.”

Asked whether the Conservation Authority could comment on the gravel infilling and its impact on the marshlands, CRCA indicated they would not be commenting further than the statements above.

While the marshlands in question abut those protected by Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), that organization has no influence or authority in this matter.

“Our staff are aware of the situation and have confirmed it is not the site of a DUC wetland project,” said Joanne Barbazza, Head of Communications for Ducks Unlimited Ontario, in response to Kingstonist inquiries.

“Recovery and clean-up is being managed by Environment Canada and CN, and DUC is standing by to offer its conservation expertise and science as may be required.”

The feathered friends of the Little Cataraqui Creek and Marshlands Conservation Area. Top row: A grackle perched atop the rail line (Photo by S.J. Coates), and an osprey feasts on a catfish breakfast (Photo by Sharon E. David). Bottom left: A flicker spots the camera from a mossy tree (Photo by S.J. Coates). Middle row: A great horned owl peeks through the branches (Photo by Mark Read), and a Virginia rail hides among the reeds (Photo by Mark Easterbrook). Bottom row: An American goldfinch spashes in its bath (Photo by Janet Hill) and a yellow warbler holds on to the budding branches at Marshland Conservation Area (Photo by Janet Hill).

In an attempt to gain insight from an independent expert, Kingstonist reached out to Dr. Stephen Lougheed, the Baillie Family Chair in Conservation Biology, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at Queen’s University, and Director of the Queen’s University Biological Station. Dr. Lougheed was quick to point out that he has not personally toured the derailment site, and therefore does not know the extent of the gravel infilling. But not seeing the actual site is irrelevant to some of the basics, he explained.

“It’s about the absolute worst time to be filling a wetland,” Lougheed said in an interview via Zoom from the Queen’s Biological Station.

Although the filling of wetlands is “always bad,” regardless of time of year, Lougheed pointed out that, right now – the springtime – is a time when things literally come to life in such natural spaces.

“I can say, right now, that wetlands, marshes are really alive with lots of things. So, amphibians have been breeding, some of them, like leopard frogs, breed very early. So, there will be tadpoles,” he said.

“And so, you know, if you dump a bunch of gravel into a wetland, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll bury something like that.”

Beyond amphibians in the early stages of life, Lougheed pointed to those living along the water’s edge – frogs, toads, turtles – as well as the birds that would be nesting in the area, meaning eggs are typically resting in nests at this time of year.

“There are lots of potential consequences,” he said.

Again cautioning that he has not “done an explicit survey of the area,” Lougheed spoke to the biodiversity of the wetland in question, as well as that of the Little Cataraqui Creek in general, and of Marshlands Conservation Area, where Lougheed himself used to birdwatch.

“There are the typical denizens of marshlands… I have heard yellow warblers along there and I have heard redwing blackbirds… I’ve seen green frogs along there. So, it’s not a particularly rich creek, but it is rich. It certainly does have some diversity there that I like seeing,” he said of the wetland along each side of Bath Road.

Aerial view of Marshlands Conservation Area. Photo via CRCA website.

“That creek in particular, from Marshlands [Conservation Area] all the way up, it’s a pretty rich corridor,” Lougheed continued.

“[Marshlands Conservation Area is] incredibly rich with migratory birds in the spring. There were chorus frogs there, which is amazing to hear, and you know there are spring peepers there… it’s really a pretty special place.”

Lougheed said that he isn’t sure if removing the gravel after work to clean up the derailment is complete would do any good – the damage is already done, in that respect. But, pointing out the three derailments along that CN spur line in as many years, he did “opine” on what he feels needs to happen.

“I think the City has to be more attentive, think more carefully about how it’s going to treasure these [wetlands] and steward them into the next century,” he said, noting that “in a city like Kingston, it’s death by 1,000 cuts.”

“You sort of gradually chip away at the integrity of these marshlands and then it comes a time where you say, ‘Well, it’s essentially dead anyway.’ Well, it’s essentially dead because you did all of this stuff over the last century!”

In terms of the chemicals that may have leaked into the waterway as a result of the derailment, Lougheed was quick to declare that he is not a biochemical expert, but “I’m sure it’s nasty, because the precursors of nylon just have to be nasty. So that’s not ideal, either… and five litres… that’s a lot of chemical.”

Moreover, Lougheed underscored the importance of wetlands in the natural water cleaning process, one many people either overlook or don’t understand.

“I think that the penalties for doing damage to a wetland should be much, much higher… People complain about beach closures, you know, with the E. coli being increased. And that’s sewage filtration plants not functioning well. But it’s also an antiquated sewage system. And quite frankly, it’s drainage of wetlands – we don’t have the natural capacity, we’ve removed the natural capacity to cleanse water,” he said, noting that something clearly needs to be done about the rail line that travels across Bath Road and through the marshland around the Little Cataraqui Creek.

“Even in Eastern Ontario, where we still have lots of wetlands, it seems [in] some of the areas, we’ve drained 40, 50, 60 per cent of the wetlands that used to be here… If you go to southwestern Ontario, where I do some work down by Windsor, there are townships where close to 100 per cent of the wetlands have been drained. And then people complain about water quality? Well, of course, because we’ve removed the natural capacity to clean water.”

The renowned biology academic who, just minutes before the interview, had been out in the creeks of the Biological Station with students, experiencing that natural biodiversity in its fullest while catching water snakes for research paused in reflection for a moment.

“I think people forget,” he said.

“I think these wetlands, these little forests that we have, they have to be treasured.”

In response to Kingstonist inquiries regarding the gravel infilling, the makeup of the gravel used, how much was used in total, and what species are known to live in the area affected by the derailment, MECP deferred most responses to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, who, until Thursday, May 11, 2023, had not been mentioned by any of the involved parties Kingstonist has spoken with.

“CN Rail is working with the Cataraqui Region Conservation Authority regarding the necessary permits to undertake the emergency in-water work and any restoration plans,” an MECP representative said with regard to how much and what type of gravel was used, the impacts of it, and if it will be removed.

MECP clarified that their staff had not toured the derailment site with CN, but rather Environment and Climate Change Canada staff had. Kingstonist has reached out to that ministry with the same questions, but response was not immediately received by time of publication.

“CN Rail has retained an environmental consultant to undertake surface water monitoring and to develop a wildlife management plan as a result of the train derailment. Please check with CN Rail directly for more details,” MECP said of species that call the derailment site home and the impacts on them. The MECP representative did say, however, that their Ministry is following up with CN.

Kingstonist has already reached out to CN Rail with questions regarding environmental impacts, but no response was received by time of publication. Kingstonist will continue to seek answers about this through CN and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

3 thoughts on “Experts, authorities address Kingston train derailment environmental impacts

  • I am very glad to read that you are pursuing this and pushing for answers. CN allegedly allowed 5 litres of hexa-whatever to leak out from the derailment but then threw 5 tonnes of gravel on top of that same poor wetland. I agree that the penalty for damaging a wetland or water course should be quite severe.
    I look forward to hearing more. Thanks!

  • What CN has done is extend land to where the bridge broke by doing the infilling. The infilling has included creating a stable slope up to the railway tracks on the bridge. Piles have been driven into the north side of this causeway/slope to strengthen the the gravel infill. New tracks have been installed down the slope to join with the existing ones at the Bath Road level. In my opinion: The new situation is much sturdier than having the train keep rolling over a bridge at that point as it was doing before and that taking out the infill would create more damage than the putting of it in. I am more concerned with the potential of more public accessibility to the Creek now that there is no marsh in that spot to make access more difficult. One of the reasons there is much wildlife along that area of the Creek, egrets, otters, and lots more, is that it remains undisturbed by humans 98% of the time.

  • Go Tori. Thank you for being a genuine digger journalist. Ktown is so lucky you are here. No one else comes close

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