For a journalist the hardest job is often trying to separate the facts from the spin. And when people are in reaction to trauma, the picture soon gets muddy. In today’s post I present an interview with Dr. Trevor Corneil, Medical Health Officer for the BC Interior. Dr. Corneil was the health authority responsible for ordering the evacuation of Slocan Valley residents during the initial 18-hour period following the jet fuel spill of July 26. He is a soft-spoken man who seems to measure each phrase carefully. I got the sense of someone who is doing the best he can within the labyrinth of government hierarchy, with the humility to admit that there’s always room for improvement when it comes to disaster response. Interestingly, however, some of Dr. Corneil’s comments hint at the left hand of government not knowing what the right is doing.
JOYCE: In my interviews with residents, many are reporting that there have been incidents of skin rashes or respiratory issues long after the initial crisis is over. Some have been asking whether Interior Health is planning to do any kind of health survey of affected residents?
DR. CORNEIL: The decision to make a study of health impacts is based on the type of substance and the length of exposure. In this case the exposure was a short enough period of time and/or at concentrations low enough that we do not expect any long-term effects. With small amounts of exposure intermittently to the fuel in the water, you’re going to have short-term effects such as rashes and a little bit of difficulty breathing. This would not be considered long-term effects and because of that there isn’t a role for what we would call a health impact study.
It certainly doesn’t make the acute exposures any less concerning or any less distressing. But the short-term exposures are ones that can be managed through emergency rooms and family physicians. We know that in the weeks following there were visits to emergency related to exposures and we did find there were people who had effects from the fumes, but once those numbers died down we knew it was short-term exposure in the bigger picture. We felt that, along with the testing, we were able to make that decision.
JOYCE: So is short-term versus long-term exposure a legal definition then?
DR. CORNEIL: No, it’s a medical assessment based on the advice of trained medical staff. That’s why some of us spend up to 14 years in med school.
JOYCE: Could you give me an example of long-term exposure then?
DR. CORNEIL: An example of a long-term exposure would be someone who fuels airplanes all day long at the airport, who is constantly exposed to jet fuel. There are things based on certain symptoms a person would experience where the ongoing toxic effects on certain parts of the body could cause long-term damage. We know that people who live next to a major highway may have ongoing respiratory problems that are higher than the rest of the population, but even there we don’t necessarily see a higher rate of cancers. Whereas people working with fuel daily could have problems with toxicity, while those living next to a highway might not.
JOYCE: One thing that’s curious is that of all the test data released to the public by the Ministry of Environment, no airflow data was provided. According to one environmental remediation expert (Anita Burke), this is a standard part of the data set used to determine risk to populations following spills. Was this data provided to you and was it used as part of the basis for your evacuation order?
DR. CORNEIL: Noon on the Saturday (July 27) was when we had our first look, and the initial tests showing fuel in the water. I didn’t say, “Do you want to close the highway,” I said, “I’m not having people drive through that, I’m closing it.” But we did get air testing from the Ministry of Environment. My decision to lift the evacuation order and open the highway was based on that. There was no presence in the air the next day. I don’t know what machine they were using, whether it was qualitative, meaning yes or no to the presence of fuel, or quantitative—actually measuring amounts.
JOYCE: It’s fair enough to say that for the majority of Slocan Valley residents, the crisis is over—they’re not in any danger. But for those living closest to what we might call ‘Ground Zero’—along Lemon Creek especially—the problem persists. Due to the unique composition of that delta, which has higher than normal sand deposits for this area, there will be pockets of jet fuel trapped there that will continue to periodically flush out into peoples’ water systems, possibly for years to come. What do you say to these residents?
DR. CORNEIL: We’re certainly concerned with any resident that is still having exposure. Our status quo isn’t ‘do nothing,’ our status quo is ongoing samples. Our capacity to provide testing and support does end at the point where something becomes absolutely private. For instance if a water system has two or more dwellings, then we do have some jurisdiction. But once it’s an individual well or someone drawing off a river we have no jurisdiction. When individual residents have a concern they absolutely can contact us through our health unit and if that water system is one over which we have jurisdiction under the law then we’ll absolutely contact that family and that purveyor of water services. When it comes to private individuals, we do give as much support as we can. We can give them advice on how to use or not to use their water. But we do depend on the Ministry of Environment to provide testing data. Certainly nothing at the spill site is of specific concern or we wouldn’t have lifted the order. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some remnants of fuel there, so it’s an advisory of prudence: avoid water with fuel odour.
JOYCE: What was it like for you dealing with all the layers of government bureaucracy in a disaster situation like this? Did you find it hampered your ability to do your job properly? Many people here felt like one hand hardly knew what the other hand was doing sometimes. Others pointed to the top-heavy bureaucracy of Interior Health, where there’s too many administrators and not enough people like yourself who are trained to deal with situations on the ground.
DR. CORNEIL: That was not the case with this issue. We actually had all hands on deck—our CEO and executive team were very aware and responsive. I had no administrative red tape to get through. For those of us who were working that weekend, the Ministry of Environment was providing us with everything we needed. They still are; they see it as an issue that’s ongoing. And this does happen with disasters, dissolving the wall of complexity. I can’t think of one major participant that wasn’t committed to doing this and even Executive Flight Centre stepped up.
The hardest part is transitioning back into business as usual. That doesn’t mean it’s not important anymore. There’s a lot of stuff going on in the background people don’t know about so it’s not that we don’t care what’s going on.
Every major incident like this is reviewed. They’re not investigations per se so much as they are reviews of the quality, what worked and what didn’t and what can we improve on next time. We learn new things every time; every disaster is different, they’re all quite complicated. There’s lots of different things happening at once. There were a couple of hiccups there where things didn’t go so well. But this one I think was managed quite well.
JOYCE: One friend of mine who lives at Lemon Creek told me that as recently as September 8 he could smell jet fuel in his toilet bowl and sink. Yet this is well over a month after the ‘do not use’ water order was lifted by Interior Health. You can understand I’m sure why many valley residents don’t feel they can trust what they’re being told. For them, this is far from over.
DR. CORNEIL: It’s very stressful when an area you live in has been traumatized and I think it’s often not talked about. It’s important that we acknowledge that an event like this is stressful, it’s not in your head, it’s real. Environmental health does include psychological health. Acute stressors and medium to long-term stresses of any kind wear people down. Ultimately those can become health diagnoses. But usually they’re resolved by dealing with the event initially and trying to return your environment to its natural state. I don’t expect people in the valley to actually get over this for some time. Probably in the New Year they’ll feel some semblance of getting back to normal.
NOTE: According to Interior Health Communications Officer Karl Hardt, if residents have concerns about their water at this point they should contact the Nelson Health Unit at 250-505-7200. Be sure to discuss any health concerns with your family physician.
UPDATE: The Ministry of Environment reports: “We have received drafts of the water, sediment and biological monitoring components of the Environmental Monitoring Plan. Ministry staff continues to review and provide comments to Executive Flight Centre. We are awaiting the air quality data to be submitted to the ministry. Recent focus has been on collection and shipping of wildlife specimens allegedly impacted by the spill.”