A fuel tanker truck driver making his way to the Lemon Creek firefighting base on Friday, July 26 may have unwittingly unleashed the worst environmental disaster the Slocan Valley has ever seen. On his way to the base, he mistakenly turned up Lemon Creek Road, a deactivated forestry road that follows the creek. About 3–4 kilometres up the road, he realized his mistake, and turned the rig around. At a narrow point in the road part of the bank gave way, flipping the tanker into Lemon Creek and releasing 35,000 litres of helicopter fuel into the creek. According to his employer, Executive Flight Centre of Calgary, Alberta, he walked away with minor injuries but was very shaken up.
Residents within three kilometres of the spill and along the Slocan River watershed as far south as South Slocan were under evacuation order Friday night. Emergency crews patrolled the length of the valley, warning swimmers to get out of Slocan River. Unconfirmed reports said that some firefighters from the Perry Ridge area wildfires were pulled away to serve as first responders at the scene in Lemon Creek until local fire departments were able to take control of the situation.
“I came home and could smell the fuel in the creek, really strong,” says Lemon Creek resident Jon Burden. “It’s a travesty, an absolute travesty environmentally.” The Burden family chose to evacuate.
The truck was en route to supply helicopters working with a fire suppression crew on forest fires in the Perry Ridge area. Highway 6 was closed temporarily when the disaster occurred, down to single lane traffic. Emergency personnel were advising people to turn around but had no legal authority to compel anyone not to proceed north or south on the highway from that point. By Saturday morning the highway had opened to local traffic but blockades were in place at New Denver in the north and South Slocan. These were lifted by 1:30 pm, fully opening Highway 6 again. Residents were advised not to drink their well water.
By about noon Saturday the Regional District of Central Kootenay had partially lifted the evacuation order to affect only those living within 800 metres of watercourses. A reception centre was set up at WE Graham school in Slocan, just north of Lemon Creek, for evacuees. Other evacuation centres were set up in Nelson at LV Rogers Secondary School and the Selkirk College 10th Street campus. Slocan Mayor Madeleine Perriere said she was up ’til 3:30 am Saturday morning helping evacuated families at the school.
The Quantum Murray Emergency Response HAZMAT crew arrived Saturday morning and began remediation efforts with absorbent pads, booms and containment barrels. A double tank trailer was also on site to extract whatever fuel is remaining in the fuel truck. Aa car with the Executive Flight Centre logo was spotted on the forestry road Saturday morning, presumably to investigate the scene. Given the difficult terrain and narrow road, it’s unknown at this point how the tanker will be removed from the creek.
According to an RDCK media release, a 2–3 kilometre plume 30–50 metres wide is above the Brilliant Dam and crews are using a back eddy to contain it. Sampling of air and water at several locations are indicating a rapid dispersal of the fuel. Further testing downstream will be ongoing. The RDCK has stated that almost all the tanker load—35,000 litres—was released into Lemon Creek by the accident. The warning issued Friday night by Medical Health Officer Dr. Trevor Corneil noted that jet fuel poses a serious health risk. Exposure can burn skin and inhalation of its fumes can damage respiratory systems and cause brain damage.
I managed to get to the accident scene Saturday morning about 10 am. Executive Flight Centre had by then brought out a second tanker to provide fuel needed for firefighting helicopters, parked at the bottom of Lemon Creek Road. According to Winlaw Fire Department Chief John Wallenberg, the road has been decommissioned for about 10 years now and so has not been maintained. Driving up the cramped, pothole-riddled forestry road, I was followed by a Global TV cameraman and news anchor John Daly. Once we found the scene, it was clear the tanker was pointed downstream when it went into the creek. There is a huge gash in the tank near the back end. (See photos) It appeared from fresh damage to the roadbed that it had partially given way on the right hand side, probably tipping the tanker into the creek.
It’s too early to tell how long it might be before Lemon Creek residents can drink their well water. Local stewardship societies such as the Slocan Valley Streamkeepers and Slocan Lake Stewardship Society (SLSS) are concerned about the long-term impact on aquatic ecosystems and fish in the watershed. Wayne Smook, Senior Vice-President of Airport Services for Executive Flight Centre confirmed the jet fuel is the A-1 type.
“We certainly want to apologize to residents on behalf of Executive Flight and we’re going to do our best to make sure the site is cleaned up and things get back to normal as soon as possible,” said Smook about 4:30 Saturday afternoon. “As we speak, the residual fuel in the tank is being removed. Containment booms are in place and they’re monitoring the creek.”
A-1 jet fuel can cause “significant damage to skin, lung tissue, gastrointestinal tissue, and brain tissue. Volatile organic compounds such as these can also exacerbate any chronic diseases such as emphysema, heart disease, and neuromuscular disorders.” At the time of writing it’s not known what the possible environmental effects could be, but a similar fuel, JP5 (jet propulsion 5), according to a Parks Canada document, “can be directly toxic to some forms of aquatic life, can coat birds, and is of concern as a potential source of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a potentially harmful class of aromatic hydrocarbons.” JP5 is a “middle distillate” fuel; these fuels include kerosene, aviation fuels, diesel fuels, and fuel oil #1 and 2. A related fuel, JP-4, carries the risk of “potential acute toxicity to aquatic life in the water column (especially in relatively confined areas) as well as potential inhalation hazards.” Among additives to these fuels are benzenes, toluene, and xylenes.
“We really need to have some means of monitoring the long-term effects of this spill,” says Richard Johnson, technical advisor to SLSS. “Everything’s washed away downstream but the question is what’s left behind on the stream banks and whether there are any aquifers that are affected.”
There was concern locally that the road closures on Highway 6 could affect the Unity Music Festival happening this weekend in Slocan. Fortunately by 2 pm the closures had been lifted and people were beginning to return to their homes. The Village of Slocan has been suffering economically since the shutdown of the mill but attendance at the festival was looking good while I was there around noon.
The driver, luckily enough, only sustained minor injuries. “Obviously he’s very shook up by the incident and he’s resting right now,” says Smook. “After the accident he had to walk out the road quite a ways to get help. It goes without saying he went above and beyond to let somebody know.”
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