It appears that bureaucracy and reality seldom meet. On one hand, you have Slocan Valley residents reporting daily to the Resiliency Centre in Winlaw that they’re seeing fuel in their water. On the other, you have Interior Health lifting the total ban on use of water in the Slocan River watershed. Dr. Andrew Larder, Senior Medical Health Officer with Interior Health (IH), is the authority who must make such decisions.
“I lifted the order knowing full well that there was till fuel in some locations on the rivers,” says Dr. Larder. “The information I’ve been provided was that the amounts were relatively small and were localized in back eddies and log jams. The clean-up efforts would not release the fuel into the river because of the containment booms. Lifting the order was not a signal for people to stop paying attention and being careful. If they’re concerned about contamination of their well or their water supply then I recommend that they contact the number we supplied.”
Interior Health is having daily meetings with the Ministry of Environment to assess water samples that are being brought in. Dr. Larder says he lifted the water use ban progressively as information became available for each section of the river. “It was constantly being reviewed based on what the test results showed and what the clean-up was finding.”
Dr. Larder can’t comment on the clean-up since oversight for that comes from the Ministry of Environment. For reporters it’s an ongoing frustration that Provincial government ministries allow no access to staff biologists or other personnel working on the ground. Everything must be vetted through a Public Information Officer so that “messaging” is tightly controlled from HQ in Victoria.
And then there are the apparently competing and often confusing overlap of responsibilities between different government agencies. While Interior Health has no authority over environmental issues, it does have authority to issue evacuation orders. And while multiple-household water systems are governed by IH, single user systems aren’t regulated in BC at all. So Slocan Valley residents with wells will have to lobby Executive Flight Centre (EFC), the company responsible for the spill, for remittance of water testing costs charged by IH. EFC in this situation is also responsible for the costs of providing displaced residents with potable water.
“We will provide advice about testing and assistance in interpreting the results,” says Dr. Larder. “If a well is contaminated, we’ll talk to the person and advise them on the steps to take. It is homeowner’s responsibility for well testing costs.”
But this will be a definite hardship for many in this economically depressed region. And many—such as Recovery Centre manager Nelle Maxey—are questioning the wisdom of lifting the ban with so much evidence of fuel still in the water. It could also raise liability issues—there’s already a class action lawsuit underway against EFC and the Provincial government. While as Dr. Larder says, there’s no substitute for common sense, if someone goes swimming and gets sick after the water use ban was lifted, does this not make IH responsible?
John Wittmayer, former Volunteer Coordinator with the Resiliency Centre, is especially concerned that lifting the ban will let EFC off the hook, leaving residents twisting in the wind in search of clean water supplies. But so far EFC has been responsive to residents’ concerns.
“No one should be expected to drink it, let alone give it to her children,” says Wittmayer. “Meanwhile, Interior Health and the Ministry of Environment have 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.”
RDCK Area H Director Walter Popoff says he has contacted Minister of the Environment Mary Polak and has been told she will visit the valley in late August or early September. Not bad—only 4–6 weeks after the spill. “From what I’m told, Interior Health is being advised about the water order from SNC Lavalin and Polaris,” says Popoff. “My concerns are with the continuation of support for the residents.”
• Anyone with specific health questions or noticing symptoms should contact their physician. Residents with concerns about food or drinking water should contact IH at 250-420-2220.
NEWSFLASH: Winlaw Fire Chief John Wollenberg has been suspended for not less than three months due to “insubordination.” Chief Wollenberg apparently refused to put his firefighters on traffic flagging duty the evening of the community meeting at Winlaw Hall July 30. The entire Winlaw Volunteer Fire Department has quit in solidarity with their chief. Fire services for the central Slocan Valley will be covered by the Passmore and Slocan fire departments. More details to follow in the next edition of the Valley Voice.
• Nelle Maxey has been hired by the RDCK to manage the Recovery Centre (formerly the Resiliency Centre) at Winlaw Elementary School. However, most of the staff has already been laid off and her contract is only for a week or until the Centre is closed.