Life After the Spill

Now that the government has pulled out, an eerie silence seems to have settled over the valley. How are residents coping? Now that the Recovery Centre in Winlaw is gone, what are peoples’ resources? A telephone line to one lonely yet determined relief person, Nelle Maxey, whose contract with the RDCK has already expired. But no showers and no more potable water tanks. Certainly the majority of Slocan Valley residents are out of danger. Yet some families just don’t feel safe exposing their children to their well water, especially those living closest to ‘ground zero’ at Lemon Creek. For these residents, the legacy of the spill lives on.

The majority of the 33,000 litres of jet fuel made its way downstream to the dams in as little as forty minutes. But the unique composition of the Lemon Creek delta with its higher than normal sand deposits means that while water levels were dropping fast, jet fuel pushed to the sides of the creek has likely been trapped in pockets of sand or seeped into the water table. The release of this material will necessarily be erratic and unpredictable. Fortunately, according to Slocan River Streamkeepers microbiologist Jennifer Yeow, there are also beds of clay in the Lemon Creek water table, which should help speed up the flushing process.

The Lemon Creek delta has a mix of sand and gravel, unusual for West Kootenay alluvial fans which typically have very little sand. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The Lemon Creek delta has a mix of sand and gravel, unusual for West Kootenay alluvial fans which typically have very little sand. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The Interior Health ban on water use may have expired a month ago but for Lemon Creek residents that has not meant peace of mind. As late as September 8, Lemon Creek resident Jon Burden could smell jet fuel in his toilet and sink. He called Interior Health on September 3rd but it took until the 9th for someone to arrive and take samples, followed later that day by Streamkeepers. Another family has agreed to allow the Ministry of Environment to drill a test well on their property near the creek for monitoring purposes. Burden says he especially noticed the odour and taste of jet fuel between August 30 and September 2—well after remediation crews had gone home.

“Today was the first day that I actually have been able to sit outside for any length of time,” Burden wrote in an email September 11. “There was no fuel smell in the air and it bore a resemblance to country air. By that I mean there were even hints of the natural smells of grasses and trees.  If they’d tested right after I contacted them, I’m certain the levels would have been way above safe levels. As it stands we’re still waiting for the results from the 9th, so we’ll see what shows up.”

Former Resiliency Centre manager John Wittmayer and Maxey have taken notes from valley residents from the beginning, recording everything from skin rashes to respiratory complaints to food and water issues. This documentation can be used in court or litigation proceedings, explains Wittmayer, or for personal claims against Executive Flight Centre. On September 10, he wrote on the Slocan Valley Emergency Response Facebook page that with Maxey’s contract running out, “this will be the last chance to have her document people’s issues with the effects of the jet fuel spill. It is our inalienable right as Canadians to hold the institutions that are supposed to protect us, to provide safety, health, and public welfare, accountable for their actions and policies relating to this disaster. It can also help knowing that people care about what happened to you and your family, and will show solidarity with each other…”

Former Resiliency Centre manager John Wittmayer urges residents to record any reactions to the jet fuel. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Former Resiliency Centre manager John Wittmayer urges residents to record any reactions to the jet fuel. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Appledale resident Jane Flotron, who works as a herbalist, says she had several families contact her with reports of children having suspicious rashes. She too experienced rashes in the immediate aftermath of the spill and a strange swelling on her foot five days later that her doctor couldn’t explain. One Appledale resident wrote of her seven-year-old son having a “mystery rash” in mid-August that lasted almost a week, yet the boy had not been swimming in the river.

“The day the Spidex started work in Lemon Creek they stopped taking samples for the entire week,” says Flotron. “There were several cases of contact dermatitis that all came up that week. I’m not going to swim in the river until after next spring and I’m not letting my daughter in the river either.”

This is a case in point of the need for public access to airflow data to track the fuel vapour, especially in areas like Appledale known for atmospheric inversions. Maxey says Interior Health told her they have no plans to do a health study of those living in affected areas, citing patient-physician confidentiality.

Recovery Centre manager Nelle Maxey's contract with the regional district has expired, leaving residents mostly to their own devices. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Recovery Centre manager Nelle Maxey’s contract with the regional district has expired, leaving residents mostly to their own devices. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

“People keep saying, ‘I thought it was going to go away,’ or, ‘I’ll feel better after awhile,’ and it’s not happening,” says Maxey. “That’s the one thing I saw clearly at the Centre – it’s the most vulnerable who suffer most – the elderly, children, and those who are immune compromised.”

She says another issue that has been largely ignored by the Provincial government is the effect on residents’ sustenance gardens and fishing to supplement their diets. Maxey also reported these concerns to Interior Health.

“People here depend on their gardens for winter food. There’s a whole community here who do canning of whitefish. I told IHA they should go and do a test now to make sure the fish aren’t contaminated, so we can say, it’s safe to go fishing now, guys.”

But so far that doesn’t seem to have been done, except for testing of dead fish found by remediation crews or brought to McCandlish by residents. Fortunately, Streamkeepers biologist Peter Corbett, who has been monitoring fish in the Slocan River, is seeing a mostly healthy fish population.

“The emergency’s over for most people. Mostly I think people are looking out for themselves now and getting water where they need to,” says Maxey. “I know there are still people in Lemon Creek who are showering away from their homes. It’s just the people who are still worried about their water or about their health.”

Not everyone who lives closest to Ground Zero on Lemon Creek is convinced the water is safe yet. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Not everyone who lives closest to Ground Zero on Lemon Creek is convinced the water is safe yet. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

So it’s anyone’s guess what the future of the Lemon Creek environment will be or what residents will be facing in years to come. A letter from West Coast Environmental Law’s senior legal counsel Andrew Gage helped speed up the release of the test data by the Ministry of Environment. It turned out to be a mixed blessing. Residents had one of two reactions to the data. Some were simply baffled by it, lacking various degrees in environmental science. Others who at least had a good idea what they were looking at realized that what was released was only fragmentary and highly selective. For one thing, according to Yeow, the Lemon Creek wetlands were never adequately sampled. This happens to be in what she calls “the most sensitive and productive part of this entire ecosystem.” For another, to date no airflow data has yet been released since the spill.

Not unsympathetically, Slocan Park resident Jim Ross calls Environmental Protection Officer Brad McCandlish “cannon fodder,” thrown to an angry public by a government many see as doing the bare minimum for them. Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Mary Polak’s lightning tour of the Slocan Valley lasted barely a day, with a visit to the Liberal Party office in Castlegar given preference over a meeting with affected residents.

NEWSFLASH: In answer to resident’s concerns, the RDCK has contracted Slocan River Streamkeepers to take water samples and have them tested, thanks to $15,000 in discretionary grant funding from Area H Director Walter Popoff. Anyone with shallow wells close to Slocan River or who draws water out of the river can call Annalie Doerksen (250-226-7361) to set up an appointment. Jennifer Yeow of Streamkeepers said they have received results from two samples taken on August 29 and they are completely clear. “It’s very encouraging to get these results – it’s really comprehensive tests that we’re doing,” she said.

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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