You Can See it Like Snow

In Conversation with Chuck and Danielle Hutterli

As we were finalizing the microplastics research element of our trip we heard about a train derailment on the northern shore of the lake that subsequently led us to meet Chuck and Danielle Hutterli. The train derailment dumped around 100 tons of small plastic pellets into the water and they’ve been washing up on Chuck and Danielle’s beach for the past eight years. The incident galvanized Chuck into action and for years he has been working on spreading the word and trying to solve the issue. Chuck and Danielle invited us into their home for a night to share some food, stories and rest. Below is our edited conversation from that evening.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and the current situation on your beach?

Chuck: I live on the north shore of Lake Superior, east of Nipigon. On January 21st, 2008 Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) had a [train] derailment near Caver’s Hill, which is near me. This is a pristine shore, we drink directly out of the lake. It is filtered only with charcoal filter. Like you’ve seen, the water looks like air in the glass. We have evidence of plastic pollution on that shore and it shouldn’t be here. It’s been on ongoing issue for the past eight years.

These plastic pellets – nurdles , 5mm white pellets – are used for manufacturing plastic goods. They escaped through a 4-bay hopper car with 100 ton capacity, or 5,000 cubic feet capacity – one of those cars was breached. It was 2 o’clock, I’ve got the incident report here, they saw just nothing but a big pile of these pellets and a loader came to the site right away to get access to the main part of the derailment. They thought it was snow, looked like snow, it was white and it went off into the lake. They pushed it off into the lake. There was kind of a ledge where this derailment was. He pushed vast amounts of it off into the lake. Looking like well over 100 tons of it. The incident report is very confusing. They’re not sure at times which car had the pellets, how many cars had the pellets, I’ve counted up to 4 in that report there. We believe that one of them is missing, semi-submerged in Lake Superior, and that’s why eight years later we’re still getting these beads on our shore. CPR claimed, I’d like to see some paperwork, they’ve spent a million dollars on remedial. Sometimes we’ve had pretty good people here, Accuworx was one of the best, they were very, very good. They took their time, it was a crew of five and they had a big device with a screen. They actually physically screened and shoveled and screen and shoveled very tediously for five days, maybe ten days. It can be cleaned up but you need some dedication. The president of CPR, I don’t think he’d like to see this in front of his place down in Florida. I don’t think he’d like to see these plastic beads at his place and I don’t either. Hopefully someday somebody can reach out to him and say, “You’ve got a mess up here and you should clean it up.”

We peck away at it, clean it up. I made an aluminum scoop shovel with a screen on it and I do my stretch of beach down there. Before you came I had it pretty well cleaned up there were only like two or three pellets. It took me ten hours to do that stretch. Ten hours. You saw the bags I had, I couldn’t lift the bags. I gotta go out again as soon as it dries up. It won’t be too bad. I can at least clean up my area. I wouldn’t mind doing the whole thing if I could get like $100,000 or something to clean it up. I mean, if they already spent a million I wouldn’t mind having some of that coin. It’d be a great job for the summer, I wouldn’t mind doing it one bit!

Danielle: Not just in the summer but as well as in the fall. The worst storms are in October and November. In the past many big ships have been sunk in Lake Superior.  Those big waves come and bring tons of those pellets. It should be cleaned until it’s all filled with snow.

Chuck: That’s a great point, Danielle! And it’s always at a 140 degree reading on the compass from here that a significant amount of the nurdles come when we have these heavy fall storms. You can count on it, if that storm lasts longer than twelve hours, and a lot of them last 48 hours or longer, you can count on it that you’re gonna see snow out there, and it isn’t gonna be from the sky. You can visually see it look like snow.

Danielle: It’s funny because every time the wind is from the east, the wind brings all these pellets. It never comes from the west. So it’s obvious there’s a truck –a tank– there. Maybe somehow it’s underwater but it’s stuck somewhere that when there are big waves it moves the tanker a certain way, maybe there’s a crack [in the tanker] and that’s where they come from.

Chuck: Transportation of plastic is constantly on the railroad, which is a good thing. That’s the most efficient way of transporting it. I’m not demonizing the rail. I’d rather see it on the rail than in a truck transporting it up and down the highway. It’s just an unfortunate accident. It’s the best way of transporting these beads as long as they follow best practices on all kinds of things like shipping and receiving and clean sweep-up. American Plastic Society knows that the public out there is really getting pissed off about plastics escaping from their manufacturing, their sources and their trans-shipping. So they have a plan called “Clean Sweep”. It’s a manual, it tells the manufactures and the trans-shippers the best practices to use. You can imagine these hoppers might leak this way when you’re filling them and so on and so forth and it’s all on the rail. And when they get to where they’re dumping them some big spill happens or whatever and it just gets hosed down. Well, according to this “Clean Sweep” that’s not happening anymore. So this is an unusual event out here that we’ve got, that we’ve got this many [nurdles] out here on the beach. That’s very unusual for this area in this remote part of the lake. This is about as remote as you can get, this stretch right here, that has access to the water.

How long have you been living here? What brought you to this spot in particular?

Chuck: I worked for Kimberly-Clark. They had just started up with heavy equipment and it was a job just coming up and I got it. I took a ride into Rossport one day and there was a sailing regatta going on, there were a bunch of sails up, looked like butterflies from up on the road, different colors, blue and yellow. I pulled in there and bought a place and now we’re 22 years later. Then we moved here, closer to the water.

But, anyway, I’d finally like to say, I always say this in a lot of my letters and writings and stuff, I read this someplace and it says, “The path to successful resolution of the crisis clearly appears as we are the problem and the solution.”