BNSF’s practices for removing debris following landslides along its waterfront line through South Surrey and White Rock are raising concerns for residents as well as the Semiahmoo First Nation.
Following word that debris removal is encroaching on the foreshore, Chief Harley Chappell said this week he wants to connect with BNSF to learn more about how the company deals with such debris and the reasoning that results, at times, in mud, trees, boulders and even garbage on the beach.
“Obviously, it brings some concern to us when we see and hear of things like this happening,” Chappell said Tuesday.
The issue was brought to Chappell’s attention by Don Pitcairn, a South Surrey resident and president of Surrey’s United Naturists – a group “dedicated to the preservation of Crescent Rock Beach’s 60-year history as a clothing-optional shore in South Surrey and White Rock,” according to crescentrockbeach.ca
Pitcairn reached out to Peace Arch News after coming across a “debris field” on the waterfront during a walk Feb. 19; seemingly remnants of clearing that was done following slide activity that occurred during a storm at the end of January.
Pitcairn said this week that his concern around the debris “dumping” goes beyond the impact it has on naturists’ recreation.
“I’m more concerned about the fact it’s illegal dumping into a marine habitat,” he said.
“No one else is allowed to dump. Trust me, I’d get arrested real quick – and that should happen.
“I just don’t see why the railway is allowed to do this.”
BNSF officials contend that the company is acting “in accordance with our practice.”
“BNSF places debris along railroad right-of-way in these emergency situations, in accordance to BNSF’s engineering process,” spokesman Gus Melonas said.
“Appropriate transportation agencies are aware.”
The slides that occurred on the weekend of Jan. 31 resulted in suspensions of both freight and passenger train service.
The first slide came from a 150-foot slope near the 24 Avenue curve, and covered a stretch of track 30 feet long and five feet deep, Melonas said at the time. A rail crane was brought in to remove debris. A second slide on the same afternoon – approximately 30 feet long and four feet deep – occurred approximately .5 km south of the first.
Melonas said clearing steps taken in non-emergency situations “depends on the project.”
Pitcairn said he reported his latest find to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), as well as to Crime Stoppers, provincial and federal transportation ministries, and others. He said he’s taken the same steps in the past, to no avail.
“While this illegal dumping is always reported… there appears to be no consequences to the railway and no court action is taken against them.”
Transportation Canada spokesman Simon Rivet said Wednesday that DFO is responsible for oversight of the beach area and accumulation of debris from railway operations that may affect waterways.
Inspectors with the federal body “investigate all incidents, accidents and complaints to ensure compliance with the Railway Safety Act and other applicable rail safety rules,” he added.
Transport Canada has not fielded any complaints or inquiries regarding the issue, Rivet added.
DFO spokesperson Leri Davies said the provincial agency has had “minimal complaints over the last couple of years” about it, but said it’s possible that such reports – of deleterious substances – may be going directly to Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Following similar complaints in 2018, DFO officials told PAN that the agency was “looking into the matter further to address concerns regarding the impacts these works may be having on the potential sand lance and surf smelt breeding habitat in the area.”
Under the Fisheries Act, projects near water must “avoid causing serious harm to fish unless authorized by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.” As well, that “all debris and/or deleterious substances” generated by such works “should be appropriately disposed of in accordance with all applicable legislation, guidelines, and best management practices.”
Thursday, officials with the provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy confirmed they were alerted to a concern via the Report all Poachers and Polluters line. A conservation officer who looked into the matter “indicated that as the location was on the foreshore of the ocean, that the investigational follow up is the responsibility of DFO.”
“The violation would be associated to destruction of fishery habitat under the Federal Fisheries Act,” the official told PAN by email.
Pitcairn said he understands BNSF’s mandate to keep trains moving along the line, and doesn’t oppose that. However, he is hopeful that Chappell’s interest in the debris issue will spark change.
“I’m hoping he’ll maybe be the person that can actually stop them from doing this,” Pitcairn said. “He has the position and authority to actually, hopefully, make some change on this.
“I’m not trying to cause BNSF grief and money and this and that. I just want them to clean up their act and not be burying the beaches down in South Surrey/White Rock. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Chappell said he believes there are “multiple layers” that need to have input to the issue, and that SFN has “a vested interest” and a right to be involved in those conversations.
He added that the practice of placing debris in such a way that it impacts the foreshore is “contradictory” to ongoing efforts to enhance and protect sensitive areas.
“It’s a discussion that needs to be had, and unfortunately, as of (Tuesday afternoon), I haven’t had that discussion,” he said.
“I just think, as these occurrences… happen more readily these days, what is the plan? If there has been a plan in the past dealing with debris on the tracks, what is the plan moving forward? I think that’ll probably be part of the discussion.”
Melonas was not available to comment Wednesday regarding whether BNSF has responded to SFN’s request.