Nearly 400 Slocan Valley residents turned out the evening of July 30 for a meeting that overflowed the Winlaw community hall into the parking lot. Valley residents were worried and angry about last Friday’s jet fuel tanker spill in Lemon Creek. Local authorities convened the meeting to provide residents with an update on the situation. Loudspeakers were set up so those outside could hear the questions and answers. RDCK Fire Chief Terry Swan did his best to keep a veneer of civility to the proceedings, which frequently veered out of control.
Among the alphabet soup of government ministries represented was Dr. Trevor Corneil, BC Interior Medical Health Officer, who was flown in by helicopter for the meeting. He outlined the sequence of events following the spill and his subsequent issuing of the evacuation order on Friday night. Dr. Corneil explained that while the main evacuation order was lifted by 12:30 Saturday afternoon, the ‘do not use’ order for water remains until further notice. Interior Health is testing water samples and hopes to lift the order in 5 – 10 days.
Residents are advised not to use water for drinking, bathing, swimming, or watering gardens. Executive Flight Centre (EFC) is dealing with the water needs of larger commercial operations like farms, ranches and nurseries on an individual basis. Some beaches are still open as long as people don’t go near the water. One resident said signs at these locations weren’t enough to deter people so Fire Chief Swan offered to get crews out the next morning with flagging tape.
Courtney Hesketh of Interior Health said residents should apply the ‘three by three’ rule for vegetables – rinse in clean, warm potable water three times for three minutes. If it’s suspected that garden vegetables have been exposed to the fuel, throw them out.
But getting access to enough potable water is still an issue for residents. Fire Chief Swan said the town of Castlegar was cleaned out of bottled water and valley residents can pick up supplies at fire halls in Crescent Valley, Passmore, Winlaw and at Kennedy Road in Lemon Creek. Residents are asked to bring containers for hauling and storing water. When asked about testing individual wells, Dr. Corneil said at this point that isn’t being done yet but that IH would offer testing to residents.
One resident who lives within a kilometre of the spill said she could still smell jet fuel throughout her home and was worried about her children and farm animals – a concern echoed by other locals. Fire Chief Swan advised her to see him before she left the meeting because he doesn’t believe she’s in a safe situation. Anyone still noticing a strong fuel odour in their home is advised to leave until the vapours dissipate.
Fire Chief Swan was asked how the safety of volunteer firefighters was handled to ensure their health and lives weren’t threatened. Swan said they were advised to leave the area if strong odours were detected and only re-enter with breathing apparatus.
Ministry of Environment Incident Commander Vron Novosad said he had taken over from Rick Wagner, who handled the situation immediately following the spill. Wagner had taken air quality samples along Slocan River and passed the data along to IH, resulting in Dr. Corneil’s evacuation order. Novosad said 32,000 litres was the actual amount that went into Lemon Creek; about 2,000 litres was pumped from the truck before it was removed from the creek. He estimated that within 40 minutes of the accident nothing but residual material would have been left in Lemon Creek. Remediation contractor Quantum Murray was hired by the owner of the tanker, Executive Flight Centre, and has between 60–80 people at work in the valley. In addition, SNC Lavalin was hired by EFC to provide expertise, represented at the meeting by Cory Bettles. When asked by audience members, Bettles said they would be glad to hire locals for the remediation work.
Novosad said booms had been placed by Quantum Murray at Brilliant and on the Slocan River at Winlaw bridge to contain fuel still in the watercourse. This technique was openly mocked by many in the audience. When asked why no containment was done Friday night, Novosad – who works from MoE’s Cranbrook office – said the West Kootenay lacks hazmat personnel or equipment. To EFC’s credit, they had Quantum Murray on Lemon Creek Road by 10 am Saturday morning when this reporter investigated the spill site. At that point there was no MoE presence yet.
The ministry will be monitoring Quantum Murray’s remediation efforts to ensure they meet government standards. Crews are checking stream banks for residual jet fuel as well as dead fish, birds or animals that need to be removed. These will be sent to labs for testing. A two-pronged remediation approach will include soaking up the fuel with peat moss and flushing the site.
“We’re looking at best practices,” said Novosad. “We won’t damage the environment any more than it has been already, so we won’t take an excavator into waterways.”
SNC Lavalin’s Bettles said the company will have biologists and hydrologists taking samples along the river to be sent for analysis. Air quality will be monitored continuously with the technical advice of a meteorologist. Water quality monitoring has been ongoing since the Sunday following the spill. Bettles confirmed that jet fuel A-1 is acutely toxic to fish, animals and humans.
“Because of the geographic extent it’s almost impossible for us to know the full extent of impact on fish,” he said. “We’re collecting as many diseased fish out of the environment as possible to avoid further contamination.”
Bettles said there’s a potential for bio-accumulation in fish and wildlife from the residual fuel; this will be monitored and tested. They will also be checking the Columbia River for evidence of residual fuel. The company is bringing in another 5–10 staff.
Wayne Smook of EFC, the owner of the jet fuel tanker, apologized to the residents for the disaster. The company activated its emergency response team the evening of the spill but so far is shielding the tanker driver from the media.
“I want you to know that EFC is committed to being here and working with experts and authorities,” said Smook. “We’re committed to doing the job right.”
Many residents wanted to know why the tanker driver passed not just one but two signs indicating the road was closed. Bud Stirman of Transport Canada said they will be investigating the accident and if any evidence of alcohol or substance abuse is found they will prosecute. But at this point it’s looking like simple human error.
The RCMP came in for some of the heaviest criticism for their handling of traffic during the disaster. Sergeant Daryl Little of the Slocan Lake/Nakusp detachment said they were notified about 4 pm Friday of the tanker spill and dispatched staff to the site. Little said by 9:30 pm they were in a conference call with other authorities about the evacuation order. RCMP called on Slocan Valley fire departments as well as Nelson Search and Rescue to assist with managing traffic and evacuation. YRB crews were recruited to staff roadblocks at South Slocan and New Denver; these were lifted by about 2 pm Saturday. One Lemon Creek resident said he was puzzled that when he came home Friday afternoon, RCMP were doing a booze and pot stop check for those headed to Unity Festival in Slocan. Little explained that he only has about a dozen staff available for the entire area and some of these had to be kept on regular duty – an incredible admission given that the valley was in a state of emergency. It’s not uncommon during emergencies and natural disasters for police to bring in staff from outside the district. One woman claimed she and her daughter drove into the valley from South Slocan with no warnings at all. Still, Sgt. Little was applauded loudly when he said, “I think they did an awesome job on the evacuation.”
Sadly, many in the audience used question period as an opportunity to air personal grievances, some of them completely unrelated to the disaster. This caused the meeting to drag on nearly to midnight. Sitting in the stuffy hall, the audience was repeatedly annoyed by rambling speakers, often shouting out: “What’s your question!” Occasionally the authorities present were subjected to bizarre accusations. One young man got loud cheers when he said: “I want you to know that you have all the volunteers you need right here in this room. We want to help – put us to work!” Fire Chief Swan advised volunteers to report to their local fire hall for assignments.
Residents planning to submit claims for compensation can contact 1-888-681-6331. Other contact numbers for information include: MoE: 250-354-6333; RDCK 1-800-268-7325; and IHA 250-420-2240.