Dinner with the Damned
It’s not easy to sit and eat dinner with someone whose life has been destroyed. After a visit to the Winlaw Resiliency Centre and an interview with Volunteer Coordinator John Wittmayer, Anne and I ended up sharing a table with one of the Slocan Valley residents worst hit by the jet fuel spill of July 26. Although Helen (not her real name) shows no signs of giving in, her well water has been fouled. She has to keep the windows of her Appledale home closed because the air still reeks of the stuff. And if she ever wants to sell her home, well, good luck.
As we were about to leave the Resiliency Centre, Helen showed up with her latest sample—after the water use ban had been lifted by Interior Health—reeking of jet fuel. She’s wisely kept water samples in sealed and marked Mason jars ever since the spill. It nearly took my head off when I took a whiff of it. The odour was still strong all along Lemon Creek when I was there Tuesday (August 6). While we were at the Centre a man staying with friends came in for a shower and some water. He said they can still smell fuel in log jams on Slocan River.
I’d just spent about an hour interviewing Volunteer Coordinator John Wittmayer. He gets reports every day from Valley residents complaining of fuel odours. In his words, now that the big ‘clean-up’ show is over, the community feels like it’s being “abandoned to its own resources.” But thankfully not yet. Glen Gibson, who has been on site managing the Resiliency Centre equipment for the Ministry of Forests, confirmed by phone Sunday morning that shower and washroom facilities will continue at the centre for now. The ‘Do Not Use’ order for water in the Slocan Valley was lifted on August 9—far too soon, given the reports coming into the Centre. (http://www.emergencyinfobc.gov.bc.ca/2013/08/lemon-creek.html)
After Helen came into the Centre, Wittmayer posted on Facebook, urging anyone with water samples smelling of jet fuel to bring them in as soon as possible. “No one should be expected to drink it, let alone give it to her children. Meanwhile, Interior Health and the Ministry of Environment has deemed that the water is safe to drink, bathe in, irrigate their crops with, feed their family with, water their animals with. This is a travesty, and it is a criminal act condoned by the Provincial Government. It has got to stop now before someone else gets sick.” Residents are also being told by Interior Health that they will have to pay for water testing. (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Slocan-Valley-Emergency-Response/407812662661033)
Wittmayer was hired by Quantum Murray, the environmental remediation firm hired by Executive Flight Centre (EFC), owner of the crashed jet fuel tanker. His job has been to act as information officer but in reality he’s had to act as a kind of trauma traffic cop. Almost every day at the Centre he’s witnessed scenes of angry or distraught valley residents. Sometimes he can talk them down himself, other times it’s out of his league so he directs the distressed to qualified counsellors. He has nothing but praise for this team of 35 volunteers, who have pounded the pavement to put up notices, given out information sheets and made hundreds of phone calls. During the evacuation Wittmayer had to advise his volunteers to keep calls to 2-3 minutes because they were succumbing to residents’ emotional trauma. At the Centre the team has had to cope with the daily onslaught of residents’ physical needs as well. Some elderly residents need to have water delivered to them. Other volunteers have been kept busy collecting samples of water and dead fish.
“My staff have been just stellar all the way down the line,” he says.
According to Wittmayer and many valley residents, the entire emergency response has been fraught with “incompetence, inconsistencies, confusion and lack of response” from key government agencies. The Ministry of Agriculture so far has been a no-show, despite the fact that organic farmers now stand to lose their certification—and therefore their livelihood. In an economically disadvantaged region such as the Slocan Valley, Wittmayer points out, even peoples’ kitchen gardens can mean the difference between making it or not making it through the year. With remediation crews pulling out and the Resiliency Centre in sunset mode, the operation moves into what Wittmayer calls a “social welfare” role, helping people meet basic needs. Holly Jack, Coordinator with the WE Graham Community Services Centre in Slocan, will be managing a food bank for affected residents. Already the Red Cross and Salvation Army have stepped up to fill the void left by Provincinal government agencies. Wittmayer also has high praise for Area H Director Walter Popoff and his tireless efforts.
From the beginning, there’s been the barest ghost of presence from the Ministry of Environment. The Saturday morning after the spill when I was there, I saw no evidence of MoE staff. Our MoE man from Cranbrook, Vron Novosad, put on a good show at the public meeting in Winlaw Hall July 30. But residents are wondering how much of a long-term presence will be left to mop up as more jet fuel seeps up from the sand or is flushed out of the back eddies by next spring’s freshet.
Wittmayer says he’s in for the long haul, regardless of when his contract with Quantum Murray expires. He’s hoping to see a long-term Resiliency Centre spring up at the Winlaw Fire Hall or some other central valley location. Residents tell him their calls for help to Interior Health are not being returned in a timely fashion, leaving them feeling abandoned. Many fear that, with the flashy initial response now over, they’ll be left largely to fend for themselves. One of the Quantum Murray supervisors would like to stay but doesn’t know if that will happen.
“EFC has pulled out with amazing speed, as soon as they got the all-clear from IHA,” says Wittmayer. “I think they (EFC) should at least leave a small team behind. We’ve been abandoned by the Provincial government. If this happened in Christy Clark’s riding it would be a completely different story.”
If you measure it strictly in monetary terms, for people whose incomes are already marginal, it’s a disaster. If you measure it in spiritual terms, it’s an entire way of life desecrated. One of the Last Best Places on Earth, fouled by the very substance that’s destabilizing the global climate. This place where water flows from glaciers and needs no chemical help to be the best water in the world. Where the common value is wholesomely grown food for families. A place where the mountains remind you that time is relative, that something beyond the material matters. A place where the line between ourselves and this Earth disappears.