Blessing in Disguise

Chaos in Print

It is not a tragedy. It’s a cleverly disguised opportunity. – Arzon of the Spectral Knights

Whenever God closes a door, he opens a window, my mother is fond of saying. I’ve always found that to be an excessively cheery view of life, but it does have its merits. For example, you might be heading out to the movies one night to see the latest summer blockbuster. By the time you get to the theatre, though, you find the movie is sold out. Naturally, at first, you’ll be all upset and angry, but then, look at the opportunities! There are other good movies playing…many good restaurants are still open…something better may come along. And that’s exactly how the people of Wabamun are looking at their current situation.

In case you live outside of Alberta, let me update you. I live just a short 10-minute drive from Lake Wabamun. Between the town of Wabamun and the summer village of Seba Beech (the town where I went to high school) lays the village of Whitewood Sands. It’s not even really a village. It’s a collection of summer homes owned by Edmonton’s upper middle class. And, all along the northern shore of Lake Wabamun, lies the CN main line; the transcontinental railroad linking Edmonton to the west coast.

On the morning of Wednesday August 3, there was a train derailment in Whitewood Sands. 15 tanker cars jumped the tracks, broke open, and dumped their contents into the lake. They were carrying “bunker C fuel,” also known as “liquid asphalt;” a partially-refined oil used in making asphalt. There was an oil spill in Lake Wabamun.

CN immediately leapt into action. Whitewood Sands was evacuated, a berm was built and the half-empty rail cars were pumped out. CN worked feverishly to halt the flow of oil. Meanwhile, out in the lake, 2 members of the Wabamun Fire Department went out with a boom to try to start collecting the oil. But it wasn’t enough. The oil slick was growing. Also growing was the anger among the residents that CN wasn’t doing anything to clean up the oil.

Thursday morning. CN resumes cleaning up the train wreck and fixing the tracks. They keep checking to make sure no more oil was flowing into the lake. Representatives from Alberta Environment, including the Environment Minister, came out to survey the damage. It was officially labelled an environmental disaster. But the people are not happy. The people still believe that CN isn’t doing enough to clean up the oil spill.

Friday morning, rail traffic resumes. CN announces that they’re going to have a town meeting at 11 AM to update the townspeople on the clean-up efforts. At 11:15, CN representatives still hadn’t arrived. Fed up once and for all, the townspeople set up a blockade on the tracks, halting all rail traffic. The CN representatives arrive and the town meeting takes place on the tracks. At 4 PM, finally satisfied with CN’s answers, the blockade ends. And CN’s official reason for not being there at 11 AM? They were simply running late.

And now, Saturday. The clean-up is in full swing. The Alberta Government has hired the man who cleaned up the Exxon Valdez oil spill to supervise the clean-up. Veterinarians specializing in oil spill recovery have been flown in from California to help clean up the animals. CN is having a town meeting every day at noon to update the people. The crash site is now open to the public so the lawyers – oh I’m sorry, I mean the citizens – can come in and look at the damage. And, with another CN derailment in Squamish, BC having dumped sodium hydroxide into a river, dead fish washing up on shore in the Rockies are now providing better footage than oil-covered birds on Lake Wabamun. So the media is backing off. But the people are still fed up.

The affluent cottage owners of Whitewood Sands will be going home to Edmonton on Monday, and town meetings at noon every day in Wabamun are no good to them. They want CN to hire special media people to call them and update them. And, they also want CN to hire them a lawyer, so they can use this lawyer to sue CN. It’s like this: “Buy me a gun so I can kill you.”

Now, you might be wondering what my problem is. Yes, a horrible, horrible accident happened. Yes, CN caused the mess so they should clean it up and pay for the damages. After listening to the official statements, everything was done correctly to clean up the mess in the early stages.

My problem is…this is the best thing that ever happened to those cottage owners in Whitewood Sands.

Lake Wabamun is home to four coal-burning power plants, including the largest one in Western Canada. Lake Wabamun has the two things you need for a coal-burning power plant: lots of coal and lots of water. And the affluent cottage owners have constantly complained about it. They complain about the noise of the coal mines, they complain about the noise of the power plants. In the mid-1980s, they complained that the power plants had made the lake level too high. In the mid-1990s, they complained that the power plants had made the lake level too low. They joined together and formed their own watchdog group: WEPA, the Wabamun Environmental Protection Association. They commissioned study after study to see how Lake Wabamun was being destroyed by the power plants. And, every study came back with the same result: the lake is fine. As the years went on, the people grew to ignore them. They had become very good at crying wolf.

And now, this. Now, a national spotlight has been thrown on Lake Wabamun, and all those affluent cottage owners are exploiting this tragedy to bring a voice to their faux-cause. The day after the derailment, there was a letter in the Edmonton Journal: “This is exactly why the power plants must be removed from Lake Wabamun.”

They’re going to exploit this tragedy to further their cause. “Next time, you’ll listen to us when we complain about the power plants.” And they’re going to exploit it to make all those additions to the cottage that they couldn’t do before. “You destroyed the view, CN! So give me money to build a new deck!”

The people of Whitewood Sands have long been whiners and complainers. And now, they have something to complain about. They couldn’t be happier.

Can’t really blame them. They saw that the movie they wanted to see was sold out, but the Chinese food buffet is open. And lo and behold, they’re all in the mood for Chinese. A window has been opened indeed.

Yes, it’s a horrible thing what’s happened to Lake Wabamun. Yes, CN is responsible and they should pay.

But the greedy cottage owners of Whitewood Sands are going to make them pay triple.

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