Not Giving Up Yet: An Interview with Jennifer Yeow

INTRODUCTION: Microbiologist Jennifer Yeow of Slocan Valley Streamkeepers was among those present for a talk by retired federal fisheries biologist Otto Langer September 29 at Passmore Hall. Passmore is on the southern reach of the Slocan River on its way to its confluence with the Columbia and Kootenay rivers near Castlegar, BC. Langer—who worked with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as the federal Ministry of Environment for 32 years—painted a bleak picture of just how badly federal environmental legislation has been gutted by the Harper Conservatives. He said a “get out of industry’s way” philosophy has permeated upper levels of government. This has eviscerated 150 years of historic environmental legislation, resulting in corporations being allowed to virtually police themselves.

And as Murray Dobbin made abundantly clear in his book The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen, the results of such a policy are predictably disastrous. Dobbin speaks of the “complete absence of any reference to social, environmental, or labour standards or human rights” typical of ‘free trade’ deals promoted by corporations. Already we’ve had two major national disasters as a consequence: Lac Megantique and the Maple Leaf tainted meat scandal. And now Lemon Creek. While no one (human) has died yet from the jet fuel spill, the long-term effects on peoples’ health remain to be seen, particularly for those living at Ground Zero. Yet by the neat stroke of a technicality, Interior Health has declared that residents here are not getting long-term exposure to jet fuel. Yeow and I spoke by phone after Langer’s presentation.

Microbiologist Jennifer Yeow of Slocan Valley Streamkeepers intends to keep up the sampling regime near Lemon Creek.

Microbiologist Jennifer Yeow of Slocan Valley Streamkeepers intends to keep up the sampling regime near Lemon Creek.

JOYCE: So what did you think of Langer’s presentation? I think a lot of people in that room came away feeling pretty hopeless. It was a depressing state of the nation report.

YEOW: It was certainly an interesting session with Otto, nothing I didn’t know. Our local group (Streamkeepers) started in 1999, working with Bruce Macdonald (of DFO), who I think was hired by Otto. It was just such a joy to work with an agency that had some teeth here, for about five years it was great. It’s easy to blame Harper for what’s happening now but in another real sense we have only ourselves to blame if we don’t stand up to government. We have to keep pushing them. And that’s what the Sinixt are doing, or trying to do, and more power to them. There used to be a head person for the Provincial Ministry of Environment here (in Nelson) when we worked with them in the ’90s. There’s no longer a local person—it’s all being managed by Victoria.

(NOTE: The Sinixt are a local First Nation historically based in the Slocan Valley. Their numbers were decimated by disease following contact with Europeans. When the Columbia River Treaty was signed between the US and Canada in the late 1950s, the Canadian government conveniently declared the Sinixt “extinct,” since by that time the few remaining Sinixt had mostly dispersed to the Colville Reserve in Washington state. The dams of the Columbia River destroyed their traditional salmon fishing runs. They are currently pressing a court case to reinstate their status as a living nation under the federal Indian Act, so far to no avail.)

Evidence of fuel in Lemon Creek. Photo taken September 29 by Sean Arthur Joyce

Evidence of fuel in Lemon Creek. Photo taken September 29 by Sean Arthur Joyce

JOYCE: Why have we still not heard from the Ministry of Environment about the long-term monitoring plan? Residents here are feeling abandoned by their Provincial government. And some are even questioning Streamkeepers’ role.

YEOW: I started a petition that demands our data be included in the long-term monitoring plan. We need to study the Lemon Creek aquifers. We need to make sure that folks there won’t see contamination of their drinking water. And that hasn’t been done—that and the assessing and monitoring of the Lemon Creek wetlands. We’re looking to see that that’s included in the monitoring plan. We’ve been assured that we’ll be getting to see the plan shortly. But it’s the ministry, not the company, that’s dragging its heels. We can tell DFO that the monitoring program is not complete without our data. I don’t want anyone thinking that our participating means we’re validating the ministry’s process.

I did give Wayne Smook (of Executive Flight Centre) a call and he’s agreed to meet with me. Our intent at the Streamkeepers has been—we’re not interested in seeing them go out of business. They have done some cleanup. Whether they’ve done enough, well it’s a complex situation. It’s not possible to get all the fuel out of the environment. We had a big day of rain and it’s brought a lot of fuel up to the surface.

Boom containment at Lemon Creek, September 29. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Boom containment at Lemon Creek, September 29. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

JOYCE: So does it seem to you like we have any legislative means at all to get something done? Langer said all of the DFO offices in BC have been closed.

YEOW: The thing that was interesting was what Otto said about section 36 of the federal Fisheries Act. (Yeow is referring to the section of the Fisheries Act that has been part of the act from its inception shortly after Confederation. It states that no one may put a deleterious substance into a waterway. Langer told the audience at Passmore Hall that while section 35 was recently repealed by the Harper Conservatives, section 36 remains in force.) This is probably why the company has been so hush-hush. From my conversations with people in the ministry, DFO won’t be pressing any charges based on the Act, they’re deferring to the Provincial government. If it’s on the books that means at some point someone has to respond from the federal government and there’s an investigation going on. But I gather at this point it’s all from the Provincial ministry’s side. That’s what we want to keep an eye on. Regarding the class action, that’s going on a different line and we’re not involved in that at all.

When we meet up with these guys on the ground they’re usually local biologists so they’re all good, they do it accurately and well. The tricky part here is what SNC does with that data, how they interpret it, where it goes and who sees their final reports. That’s where we’re constantly digging because we’ve taken this position that they cannot create a valid report without the data that we’ve generated over the years. Some Streamkeepers groups have a constitution that requires them to share their data with anyone but we don’t have that. I want to make it clear we’re not going to give away our data without being assured it is used correctly and the long term plan include the critical components mentioned above.

A prayer for serenity? Someone left this inukshuk on Lemon Creek recently. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

A prayer for serenity? Someone left this inukshuk on Lemon Creek recently. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

JOYCE: What do you think about reports we’re hearing that residents are being told not to bother bagging specimens of dead fish, birds or animals, to just dispose of them?

YEOW: The MOE has about 200 specimens in their freezer but I don’t think they’ve done any analysis yet. We’ve submitted samples to them.  We do have long-standing relations with some people in the ministry and we trust they will tell us what’s found when it’s found. I think that with 200 samples we can get a pretty good picture of what’s happening. There’s enough there to get a good idea of the fact there were a fairly large number of fish killed, and what caused that. We don’t see that the ministry has anything to hide in this.

Trust is a person-to-person thing. I don’t have reason to suspect they’re withholding data on fish tissue analyses yet. If that trust isn’t validated then you look for other avenues. The longer we can keep communications with them the more information we’re going to get from them. Once you start with a lawsuit you’re not going to get anything more from them willingly.

UPDATE: Lemon Creek resident Jon Burden emailed me October 9 after this interview was posted with some concerns and updates: “As you know, we’ve already seen contamination in our drinking water and there were other people besides myself that smelled and tasted fuel in our water. It was just unfortunate that IH and Streamkeepers both came out to test the well on the same day, which was 6 days after it had started to pass through our system. If one of them had come out a week before and tested, something would have shown up, I’m sure.”

Lemon Creek resident Jon Burden: not satisfied his family isn't at risk. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

Lemon Creek resident Jon Burden: not satisfied his family isn’t at risk. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

“Although Greg—who was one of the people from Streamkeepers who was here testing—said that even if you can smell it, there probably isn’t enough of a concentration to show up in a lab test.

“Meanwhile, the long term exposure to fuel odor, no one seems to be clear on. IH says that fuel smell alone doesn’t constitute a health hazard. I find that preposterous and would like to know where they come up with that info.

“I got a hefty dose of the stuff when we left the night of the spill, loading supplies into the motor home, as I didn’t know how long we’d be gone for. I’ve been breathing it pretty well continuously since, albeit in a much lower concentration.

“I do a lot of work outside, like gathering firewood and just being outside in general, as I don’t like to be cooped up in a house all day. Jane, on the other hand, mostly stays in the house with all the windows closed, so she hasn’t had the exposure that I’ve had.

“It’s all a bit of a conundrum, as without proof that there was fuel in the water and with all the denial about exposure to fumes and the effect it may or  may not have,  you don’t really have a leg to stand on.

“I got home here this evening, after spending the day in Nelson, and as soon as we got out of the car we could smell the odor, as it had been raining.

“Just back from a walk down to the mouth of Lemon. All the booms have been pulled so everything is just flushing directly into the river now.

“The next big rain should be interesting.”

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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