A milk spill left Byrne Creek looking like this last week. (Paul Cipywnyk / Facebook)

How can we stop contaminants from entering Burnaby’s creeks?

A recent milk spill into Byrne Creek appears to have caused little damage. But there remains an issue of how contaminants get into creeks.

By Dustin Godfrey | March 31, 2022 |5:00 am

Last week, Byrne Creek changed colour.

Echoing a high-profile incident in Stoney Creek last summer, which left hundreds of fish dead, the creek turned a milky colour.

Speculation churned in a local Facebook group—it looked like cement or paint had been washed out into a storm drain, potentially from a construction site, some suggested.

And pollutants in waterways can have devastating effects. In late July last year, son-father duo Luka and George Kovacic noticed a milky substance in Stoney Creek, which runs behind their house.

As they investigated that spill, they found over 200 fish dead in the stream.

The cause was originally believed to be a cement washout, which affected the pH levels in the water. But while the City of Coquitlam did fine a company for washing a cement mixer out into a storm drain, that was ruled out as the cause of the fish kill.

Not crying over spilled milk

Byrne Creek’s most recent spill, however, appears to have been far less damaging. No dead fish were found as of early this week, according to Byrne Creek Streamkeepers Association president Paul Cipywnyk.

And the pollutant itself? Milk, the BC Ministry of Environment said in an email. In all, 43,000 litres of milk were accidentally released at the Agropur facility nearby, of which 70% is believed to have been contained within the facility. The remainder entered a storm sewer and drained into Byrne Creek.

This doesn’t appear to have produced any toxicity to the fish, but Cipywnyk noted the stream’s inhabitants would likely have troubles breathing water that is heavily diluted with milk.

The city said it was alerted to the spill in Byrne Creek last Thursday afternoon and “immediately dispatched staff from our climate action and energy division to investigate.”

However, the investigation was ultimately passed over to the BC Environment Ministry, and questions on the matter were directed to the province. The province said Agropur hired a contractor to assess the situation, including taking samples of creek in the water, and clean the spill up.

“While milk is considered non-toxic in small quantities, in large quantities it could cause impacts to aquatic organisms, including fish,” the ministry said. “There have been no impacts to aquatic life observed.”

With seemingly little damage done by this spill, Cipywnyk isn’t exactly crying over spilled milk.

Contaminations continue

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still an issue at hand.

At Stoney Creek, much reporting in local media has shown a long history of pollutants finding their way into that stream.

That includes substances washed out of construction sites and sewage pipes overflowing into storm drains that flow into the creek.

“We’ve never had sewage issues in our creek, but we do get a lot of construction site silt. Construction sites, sometimes they will dump out their excavations following a rain. They’re not supposed to do that directly into storm drains; they’re supposed to filter the stuff first,” Cipywnyk said.

“But I think sometimes they cut corners, because over the last year, there was a stretch of there when we were seeing silt coming down the creek every week, sometimes several times a week.”

Eventually the city got involved, Cipywnyk said, and corrective measures were taken.

“I haven’t seen that for a while, now,” he said, but noted that contaminants in the creek are an “ongoing issue.”

“We’ve had many fish kills in Byrne Creek over the last many years.”

And contaminations of Stoney Creek continue, as well, streamkeepers there said.

Stoney Creek Environmental Committee president John Templeton said volunteers have come across “no less than five recent incidents” since Feb 22.

So, how to stop it?

It’s unclear exactly how this can be stopped entirely, but Cipywnyk offered a solution that could make a difference in how much different contaminants make it into streams: natural drainage.

While SCEC volunteers have been looking at the effects of road salt on local streams, Cipywnyk noted another byproduct of roads that winds up in streams.

“There’s an issue with, particularly, coho salmon. They are susceptible to certain chemicals in car tires,” he said.

“As tires, of course, rub off on the roads, and that accumulates on the roads, and that builds up. And then particularly when flows are kind of low, like in the summertime, when we do get a rain after many, many weeks of no rain, all that stuff that’s built up on the road gets flushed into the creek in what we call a first flush.”

When a particularly large amount of the stuff gets flushed into streams, he said cohos in all stages of life suffer “severe impacts.”

“We’ve had coho dying in the smolt stages, when they’re yearlings, and we’ve also had returning coho spawners die before they can spawn because of this stuff,” Cipywnyk said.

A fair bit of research has been done on the issue south of the border, in Washington state, and Cipywnyk said the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans is also looking into it up here.

“This has happened in several places, not just our creek,” he said.

“The main way that that can be ameliorated is through infiltration, like roadside swales—or, really, in the good old days, we just called them ditches. But if there’s somewhere that the water can run off the roads and soak into the ground, the ground acts as a natural filter.”

Other municipalities ‘miles ahead’

It’s not clear how many contaminants this would work for. SCEC volunteers have noted that road salt can seep into the groundwater and find its way into local streams even without storm drains.

But Cipywnyk said his organization has been pushing “for many, many years” to get more ground infiltration as opposed to relying so heavily on storm drains.

“Our concern is that the city doesn’t even do that on their own properties. I’m not sure why, but it’s been a source of frustration, the slow pace of implementing some of this stuff,” he said.

“Other municipalities, like Delta and even Vancouver, are miles ahead in that area of providing infiltration. So that’s the main way that we could probably lessen the impact of those chemicals.”

More infiltration, he said, would also help reduce erosion in creeks.

If rainwater is being soaked into the ground, it more gradually trickles into the streams, whereas storm drains flush all of that water at once into the creeks.

“So much water gets directed straight into the grain that when it hits the creeks, the creeks get very what we call ‘flashy,’ like the water level when it rains just rises dramatically and just barrels down the creeks,” he said.

That being said, Cipywnyk doesn’t expect infiltration to replace storm sewers entirely.

“Basically, engineers come at it from the viewpoint that they want to get water away from residential areas as quickly as possible,” he said.

“But swales and infiltration ponds and things like that could certainly take a good chunk of water.”

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Dustin Godfrey

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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