Who decides when the watershed is clean?
Slocan Valley residents will soon be left to wonder if the environmental clean-up of the July 26 jet fuel spill is truly done. A confidential informant tells me that crews are preparing to wrap up their remediation efforts this week. In answer to my enquiry as to whether this is true, media liaison Jonathan Lok did his best but wasn’t quite able to give a transparent answer:
“Once the shoreline treatment endpoints have been reached as determined by the Ministry of Environment, they’ll move into monitoring. There’s no plan for a secondary crew to come back in the spring at this point. A monitoring plan is being created by SNC Lavalin, which will be submitted to MoE for approval and comment.”
It’s just this kind of ‘spin-speak’ that locals have come to distrust—it says everything and nothing all at the same time. Fortunately, Executive Flight Centre (EFC) has taken its responsibilities seriously from the start of this disaster. But with every additional day on the scene their costs mount into the thousands—strong motivation to wrap things up.
But a worker with Quantum Murray who chooses not to be identified at this time says he and some of his bosses worry that the wrap-up to remediation efforts is being rushed. There are unconfirmed rumours that ICBC, the insurer of the fuel tanker, is spurring a premature withdrawal of remediation crews.
“Quantum Murray has declared the (Slocan) River clean of product but Lemon Creek has not been cleared of contamination. There is a plan to have a few locals check and replace booms collecting fuel on the creek for some time into the future. But the booms are only so effective and the area around the confluence of the Slocan River and Lemon creek is almost impossible to clean while preventing any more product from entering the river.”
As I reported in the August 21 issue of the Valley Voice, a specialized piece of low-impact machinery known as a Spidex has been working both sides of Lemon Creek during the past week. The Spidex is used to lift boulders so that crews can hose off any remaining fuel residue. This is collected by a complex of booms downstream as far as the confluence with Slocan River. Fisheries biologist and Slocan River Streamkeepers volunteer Peter Corbett has been monitoring the work and is impressed.
“They plan on treating all of Lemon Creek from the spill site to the confluence of the Slocan – approximately 4.5 kilometres,” wrote Corbett in an email dated August 16. “I’m very impressed with these efforts. Very little sedimentation is being created from this work and the treated habitat looks the same as it did prior to disturbance.”
At last night’s presentation in Winlaw Elementary School, bio-remediation advocates Anita M. Burke and Leila Darwish spoke at length about this cutting edge approach to healing the environment. Burke is a survivor of the Exxon Valdez spill and was running a small environmental consulting firm in Anchorage, Alaska when the spill occurred. She knew her life would change at that moment, as it did for thousands of other coastal residents. Burke also worked for Shell Canada for 17 years, some of that time in its Corporate Responsibility and Sustainable Development department. She founded her own firm, The Catalyst Institute, in 2003. The Institute is “dedicated to the creation and continued development of sustainable businesses,” with Burke’s 25-year track record as a basis for professional advice. Her health gave out as a consequence of her work on the beaches trying to mop up the Exxon spill. According to Burke, EFC has stayed on the scene far longer than some companies have done in the past.
“What they’re doing is standard industry practice and they’re doing it really well. I don’t want to be too critical yet because I’m operating from an American perspective, where the approach is a little different.”
Leila Darwish presented a thorough explanation of how bio-remediation techniques work, including the use of myco-remediation or mushroom varieties known to break down hydrocarbons. It also involves using naturally occurring bacteria from compost ‘teas’ sprayed on affected areas to speed up the process. Darvish and Burke were brought in by community activists skeptical that the government will do a complete job. Darwish is a young activist and permaculture enthusiast whose book, Earth Repair (New Society, 2013, http://www.newsociety.com/Books/E/Earth-Repair) distils the best available current knowledge on bio-remediation techniques.
“Even the best technologies can’t get everything out of the environment and often aren’t enough to satisfy residents,” she told the audience. “In reality maybe 15-20 percent is all that can be recovered in clean-up operations. This is a way for communities to pick up where companies leave off, and properly finish the job”
A surprise at Winlaw last night was Castlegar ecotoxicologist Katherine ‘Kat’ Enns, who rose to speak after Burke and Darvish had completed their presentations. Enns had originally volunteered to work with Streamkeepers but then had backed out. When I asked her why, she said the group “has a specific approach they’re using that doesn’t fit with my professional requirements.” At Winlaw she seemed guarded in her enthusiasm for getting locals into the field, citing health and safety concerns for untrained workers. She encouraged residents to use the proper channels to report any sightings of fuel. Many residents expressed scepticism over being told that some discolouration in the water was ‘bio-sheen’ but Enns said this is a legitimate condition created by the presence of iron bacteria or methane created by natural decay. She seemed willing to offer support to affected residents.
“To put it into perspective it’s a small spill, the size of a small swimming pool. Any spill is very chaotic at the beginning and a lot of mistakes are often made. That said, I was disappointed by the two documents published today by the government.”
These documents contain data from samples taken between July 27 and August 9, when the final ‘Do Not Use’ ban was lifted from the watershed by Interior Health. It’s not clear whether the official testing regime has continued past that date. Jennifer Yeow and Elizabeth von Ah of Streamkeepers have been out since August 9 taking samples for independent testing. Burke had only just arrived in Winlaw and said she too will be studying the government documents. Early indications are that ethyl-benzene was shown to be present, despite Shell’s assurance that no benzene (one of the BTEX components benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene) were part of this particular batch of A-1 jet fuel.
According to the Interior Health media statement, “all of the water sample data… meet the Canadian Guidelines for Drinking Water. As well, visual assessments of the containment booms and shorelines have not detected levels of fuel that pose health concerns.” But some workers—such as my informant—aren’t so sure.
“The fact is that there is still so much residue around Lemon Creek that new contamination is still entering the river. I don’t think a through clean-up of the confluence will be possible because we cannot properly contain contamination before it enters the river. I was told that the extent of the clean up—how many days and how many people—is dictated by the Minister of Environment. But I’ve also seen the effectiveness of the clean-up heavily influenced by local pressure.”
Area H (Slocan Valley) Director Walter Popoff has been told that Environment Minister Mary Polak will visit the valley sometime in late August or early September—some 4-6 weeks after the spill. That’s hardly a way to reassure locals who already view the government with suspicion.
To view the latest local reports, visit http://valleyvoice.ca/valley-voice-online/ and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Slocan-Valley-Emergency-Response/407812662661033. The Ministry of Environment document may be obtained here: http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/main/lemon-creek/docs/Analytical_Data_Support_Information.pdf