The Ministry of Environment has released the long-term monitoring plan for the Lemon Creek jet fuel spill. The plan was prepared by SNC Lavalin, the firm hired by Executive Flight Centre (EFC) as its lead environmental consultant. However, the documents were released on a Friday afternoon of the Thanksgiving long weekend—a favourite tactic of government public relations personnel, especially for items they think might be controversial.
This left me with limited time to study the documents prior to press time for the current issue of the Valley Voice. Inevitably that means some errors have crept into the story I filed for the newspaper. The plan was released in two main parts, the Biological Monitoring Plan and the Water and Sediment Plan, comprising some 72 pages. First impressions are good, assuming the follow-through matches the steps outlined.
I reported that Slocan Valley Streamkeepers has been included as a local stakeholder (true) and that “its data will be considered in the monitoring.” However, a phone interview with Jennifer Yeow revealed that in fact, Streamkeepers has yet to receive any confirmation that their data will be included or that they will be able to review data collected by SNC.
“I just don’t want people thinking Streamkeepers is working with SNC Lavalin; that has not happened. The ministry in the end cannot direct EFC or SNC to work with us; that’s where the weakness in our governmental system appears. They know it’s right but they’ve stepped back from that authority. It’s important for people not to be deluded into thinking government is in control here.”
Yeow has contacted Wayne Smook of Executive Flight Centre (EFC) asking that a “memorandum of understanding” be drawn up that outlines Streamkeepers’ sharing and access to data in the monitoring plan. So far no such memo has been drafted. Unfortunately, due to the class action lawsuit underway, explains Yeow, one of the caveats will be that Streamkeepers cannot give any information to any parties that are involved in the lawsuit.
“We’ve given them our views on what that document would contain but it’s up to them and their lawyers to write it,” says Yeow. “And then we have to review it and run it by a lawyer. That puts us in an awkward position regarding the community because we’d normally like to have everything open. On the other hand, it’s unlikely they’d give us anything if they thought we’d turn around and give it to lawyers who were developing a legal case against them.”
Peter Corbett of Mirkwood Ecological Consultants has been hired to do the fish studies but no word yet on who’s doing the benthic invertebrates portion of the monitoring plan. Yeow says Streamkeepers had Corbett do fish counts in the side channels and the wetlands areas after the spill. But this is merely a snapshot; for fisheries data to have any meaning it must be analyzed, something that has yet to happen. In the meantime, Streamkeepers will continue with their own monitoring program. Annual fish counts in the Slocan River watershed have been paid for by Columbia Power Corporation for about six years now and this too will continue.
“How do we proceed from here?” asks Yeow. “Because as this is occurring we’ve got the Columbia Basin Truast and Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program looking to work with communities in ways they haven’t in the past. In the beginning they were really cautious about funding monitoring programs, taking on projects that should be the rightful domain of the Provincial government. But now they’re starting to take that on, because the funding is no longer there for government services.”
Here’s where the politics of self-regulation and privatization start to get complicated. Professional biologists may well be people of integrity but if they’re under contract to a private company like SNC Lavalin, their data suddenly becomes ‘proprietary’ information. The company can choose to release this data—or not. Even Streamkeepers has to walk this fine line. For example, the benthic invertebrate data Streamkeepers has collected and filed with the CBT is freely available on the Environment Canada ‘CABIN’ website. But the degree of public access to the data varies depending on the contract signed. Some community monitoring groups like Salmo Streamkeepers have a constitution that require that all their information is to be made open to the public due to their charitable status. That’s not the case with Slocan Valley Streamkeepers and other community groups.
“If we ask for funding for a particular program, like Pete’s side channel study, then that’s not necessarily open to the public,” explains Yeow. “But if it’s something like a water monitoring program, which is Basin-wide, then the data gets entered onto the Environment Canada database.”
And as the rather unfortunate old saying goes, there’s a hundred different ways to skin a cat. The same is true of testing for benthic invertebrates, those tiny, sometimes microscopic critters that most biologists agree are the surest indicators of stream health. In the monitoring plan released by SNC three different methods of analysis were listed, not necessarily the same ones used by Streamkeepers. According to Yeow there are hundreds of ways of testing this data.
“This is the crux of the reason that we want to see their data. If you put it into a different statistical analysis, you could see something quite different. It can sometimes be that the standard metric is just the one that everybody uses, it may not be the most comprehensive one.”
Initial results from field sampling done by Streamkeepers both upstream and downstream of the spill site on Lemon Creek are not promising. These samples revealed that above the spill benthic invertebrate populations seemed normal, with very little algal growth. Below the spill site there was very heavy algal growth, with benthic organisms or insects in the green mass of algae but Yeow says it’s likely they drifted down from above. Closer to the confluence there was nothing. These samples must still be sent off to a lab to be analyzed. Streamkeepers reserves the right to use a lab of its own choosing. In addition to these sites Streamkeepers will be sampling at the Lemon confluence, Slocan Island, South Slocan, Slocan as well as Bonanza Creek and Carpenter Creek for Slocan Lake Stewardship Society (SLSS).
Unfortunately, some things continue to be overlooked in the monitoring plan. The sediment testing proposed still does not allow for sampling of hydrocarbons in critical side channels below Lemon Creek. “We’ve noted this observation numerous times – to (EFC) and the Ministry and it doesn’t seem to make a difference,” says Yeow. “This is not encouraging.”
No wonder the public is confused, with a subject this deeply technical. Is that what the Ministry and SNC Lavalin are counting on? The interpretation of highly specialized data can be a way to screen out the public. Once again we can be grateful Streamkeepers are there, doing their own sampling and analysis. But until an agreement is in place with SNC Lavalin for data sharing, it’s anyone’s guess whether the full and true picture of ecosystem health post-spill will be revealed.
“The good thing that’s come out of this is that our community recognizes the importance of healthy river system. And we now have a closer relationship with the folks in the north valley. We’ve put together a proposal that strengthens that; we’ll be working with Slocan Lake Stewardship Society and the Slocan Solutions group. The goal here is that we will just continue doing our monitoring and assessments so we have such a strong database that it simply cannot be ignored.”
To read my article in the Valley Voice, which still has useful information despite the error (scroll to page 2 of the PDF online), visit this link: http://www.valleyvoice.ca/_pdf_2013/ValleyVoice131016web.pdf