Reporting on lab tests is never sexy, but we can thank our lucky stars that here in the Slocan Valley, we have an independent body testing our watershed. In response to community outrage over the almost non-existent drinking water testing done by Interior Health, RDCK Area H Director Walter Popoff provided funds for Slocan River Streamkeepers to carry on testing potable water for residents most affected by the Lemon Creek fuel spill. Now Streamkeepers has issued the results of its hydrocarbon testing.
The main goals of the testing were: 1. To check people’s drinking water as a way of assuring them it was safe to drink and, 2. To perform a cursory review of the extent of contamination below Lemon Creek. Microbiologist Jennifer Yeow was assisted in sample collecting by Justin Overholt, a biologist and technician. The site was the first side channel off Lemon Creek at the confluence of the creek and the Slocan River.
The good news—in plain English? “Hydrocarbon contaminants were below detection levels in all of the drinking water samples tested.” Does that mean Lemon Creek and the Slocan River get the all clear? Hardly. “That said, three of the five environmental water samples collected at the Lemon /Slocan side Channel on August 13th contained heavy hydrocarbon at higher levels than seen in Slocan River water shortly after the spill.” Another sample taken on September 16th in a side channel where a fuel sheen was observed registered .2 parts per billion of a hydrocarbon known as PAH-2 Methyl-napthalene. In other words, proof positive that not all of the fuel had cleared from the ecosystem six weeks after the spill.
Heavy rains at the end of September didn’t make Streamkeepers job any easier. “A sample of resident’s tap water had no odour and the lab analysis was negative for hydrocarbons,” notes the report. “A sample collected from Lemon Creek which did have kerosene odour did not have any detectable hydrocarbons,” but this speaks more to the limitations of sampling and testing than the presence or non-presence of contaminants.
When I asked Yeow if this report answers residents’ concerns about their drinking water, her answer was: Yes. And no. “Yes, there were no high levels of fuel detected. And no, because our senses tell us there can still be hydrocarbon present even when we can’t measure them.”
The report records the observations of Lemon Creek residents such as Jon Burden who have noted a higher than usual incidence of algae growth on rocks in the creek even as winter temperatures set in. (See Jon’s photos.) What does this really mean? The fact is, Yeow says, we just don’t know for sure. “The literature says jet fuel A1 is toxic to algae and is broken down by bacteria.” So it’s likely biodegradation is going on, also evident by changes in water acidity levels.
Although few of the samples tested for detectable levels of hydrocarbons, kerosene odour was clearly present in the water at levels below detection by lab instruments. “This is not the case with algae and sediment where partition is likely affected by a complex array of hydrocarbon compounds and organics in the soil. Here, hydrocarbons persist and can be detected. The ratio of heavy to light hydrocarbons may have changed but fuel persists in the environment for nearly two months post-spill during this study.”
The conclusion? “Relatively high levels of light and heavy hydrocarbons found in downstream algal growth 54 days after the spill warrant further investigation. Levels found in the algae and Lemon side channel on September 16th and 19th exceed CSR Wildland Standards (see Notes) which specify a limit of 1,000 ppm (parts per million) for these hydrocarbons.” Yeow explains that although fuel is known to biodegrade in the environment, it’s important to continue monitoring the situation to assess potential toxicity to aquatic life.
The monthly testing done by Streamkeepers to date has shown that one month after the July 26 spill the alkalinity and bicarbonate of the Slocan River at South Slocan was almost double what it was the previous three months. These levels were higher than ever seen on the river in three years of testing.
“Although that has returned to normal, we can infer that the chemistry of the river was heavily impacted during that period,” explains Yeow. “We think it’s important to track the fuel over time.”
Streamkeepers has now used up its regional district funding for hydrocarbon testing in Lemon Creek and other sites affected by the jet fuel spill. However, the group plans to continue monitoring these sites, with a full report expected in February. Monitoring will also be carried out by SNC Lavalin, the corporation hired by Executive Flight Centre. But so far there is still no response from SNC regarding Streamkeepers’ request for a data sharing agreement. So much for transparency. But then, as I’ve said before, we are clearly into the Age of Corporate Self-Regulation, God help us.
Meanwhile, the Creature from the Green Lagoon continues to bloom in Lemon Creek…
NOTES: What methods were used to collect and store samples?
“All samples were collected by technicians trained in accordance with methods outlined the BC Environmental Laboratory Water and Air Monitoring and Sampling Methods, 2009. Water samples were collected in 2x500ml actinic glass bottles (with preservative) excluding air. Sediment samples were collected in glass jars excluding air and covered with aluminum foil to protect from light. Samples were held in the refrigerator and shipped within 2-3 days to the laboratory. Holding time for these tests is 14 days.” An actinic bottle is one that is tinted brown in order to protect light-sensitive chemical compounds from visible light, ultraviolet and infrared radiation, which may alter or break them down. (Source: Wikipedia.)
What are CSR Wildland Standards and who typically uses them?
Yeow: “CSR stands for Contaminated Sites Regulation and wildlands are defined as “land for the primary purpose of supporting natural ecosystems, including the use of land for ecological reserves, national or provincial parks, protected wetlands or woodlands, native forests, tundra and alpine meadows but does not include uses defined as urban park land use.” So these include us. Typically used for agriculture guidelines or to clean up a contaminated site. i.e. The polluter is supposed to clean up land to below these limits.”