The stage for the year’s biggest news story was set when a moderate-size forest fire broke out on Perry Ridge in an otherwise quiet year for backcountry blazes.
Although no structures were threatened, a plume of smoke was visible from downtown Winlaw, and crews attacked from the air.
On the afternoon of July 26, a tanker truck carrying 35,000 litres of A1 jet fuel intended for a helicopter staging area at Lemon Creek took a wrong turn onto a forestry road — although why remains a source of debate.
A few kilometers up the road the driver realized his mistake and turned around. But for some reason — this part is also murky — the truck tipped into the creek and its punctured tank spilled all but 2,000 litres of its load (see at left, courtesy Kevin Kinsella).
The driver, who was not badly injured, ran out to the highway for help where Ed and Del Roshinksy picked him up. He said he’d been given the wrong directions.
“He was pretty shook up,” Del told 103.5 The Bridge. “He said he put his truck in the creek up on its roof. We didn’t realize it was a big tanker … He just said ‘I could have been dead.’“
It was a few hours before emergency officials knew what they were dealing with, and by then the damage was done: the fuel had already entered the Slocan River and was floating downstream toward the Kootenay River, leaving a strong stench.
A state of emergency was declared and the provincial medical health officer issued an evacuation order which initially affected 800 Slocan Valley homes and was later expanded to cover 2,500.
Highway 6 was closed and volunteer firefighters went door-to-door overnight telling residents to leave. While it’s not clear how many actually did, about 360 showed up at reception centres in Nelson (seen below left), including Krestova resident Carolyn McTaggart, woken at 3 a.m. along with her visiting sister and five nieces and nephews.
She brought her dog and guinea pig, but left her turtles and two horses behind, making her uneasy. “There are toxic fumes and horses are extremely susceptible,” she said, adding she was trying to stay calm.
The evacuation order was lifted the next day, but those returning home were under Interior Health orders not to drink, swim in, or otherwise use water from Lemon Creek, the Slocan River, or Kootenay River.
By that afternoon, a two-to-three kilometer plume, 30 to 50 meters was above the Brilliant dam and dead fish were popping up.
“It’s a terrible day for the Slocan River,” said Sarosha Stockton, an angler who posted a video of the immediate impact online.
Interior Health’s Dr. Trevor Corbeil estimated about 40 people showed up at local emergency rooms and private clinics complaining of “minor sore throats and skin irritations related to the fuel spill.”
The spilled tanker truck belonged to Calgary-based Executive Flight Centre. Senior vice-president Wayne Smook promised to clean the spill up. “We want to apologize to the residents of the area and we’re working hard to bring this incident to a successful conclusion as quickly and safely as possible,” he said.
Consulting firm Quantum Murray was hired and soon had a small army placing containment booms (seen at left) and skimming fuel into a vacuum truck, while another firm, SNC Lavalin, began collecting water samples as well as dead fish and wildlife for analysis.
Watering stations were set up for residents in Crescent Valley, Winlaw, Passmore and Lemon Creek — although the one at Crescent Valley was removed after being vandalized twice — and a “resiliency centre” was established at Winlaw providing washrooms, showers, and access to disaster relief personnel.
One resident said it was a nice gesture, but wasn’t what they needed most. “I don’t want to diminish it, but if they wanted to help us, our health should be monitored and finances made available to compensate us, because [the spill] was human-caused,” Michael Kaye said. “The community wants hands-on help with their yards and animals that are badly affected.”
Frustrations often boiled over at a packed public meeting in Winlaw a few days after the spill (below) — half the crowd stood outside listening to loudspeakers.
Resident Jane Flotron (below left), who owns a small farm near the spill site, gave a heart-wrenching account of her family’s ordeal. With an 11-year-old and a baby on the way, she was still trying to rid her home and property of the fuel smell.
“All my linens and organic materials have absorbed the smell,” she said, explaining that she was spending three hours a day cleaning. “It’s mostly laundering linens and scrubbing surfaces. By the end my hands smell like jet fuel.”
Flotron and others also worried about the impact on their gardens and crops.
Interior Health lifted its do-not-use order on local waterways incrementally between August 6 and 9, removing the final restrictions once it was satisfied all water samples met national safety standards — even though pockets of fuel were still visible. The health authority said the tests supported their belief most of the fuel would disappear within seven to ten days.
“We expected the material would largely evaporate and the majority of the rest would mix with river water and move downstream,” said Dr. Andrew Larder, senior medical health officer. “The results … confirm those assumptions.”
The Ministry of Agriculture also said tests on eight properties met all regulatory standards. But that wasn’t good enough for many residents, including one who lived nearest the spill site. Russell Hulbert, whose family was still displaced from their home long after the incident, didn’t trust SNC Lavalin’s data.
“I look at the test results and can’t believe it. I’m appalled,” he said. “I have serious concerns about how the samples were taken with regard to the type of fuel.”
Soon a class-action lawsuit was filed against Executive Flight Centre and the BC government, alleging negligence and nuisance.
Plaintiff Robert Kirk, who lives on a 51-acre property six kilometers south of Lemon Creek, called the Slocan River “a dead zone. The wildife are gone.”
He said ducks, herons, and deer had been pulled dead from the river and shorelines and wetlands that were once nesting grounds “are now scattered with carcasses.” (However, a Ministry of Environment official said he observed fish and wildlife “to a significant degree.”)
Austin Greengrass, another resident involved in the suit, said residents experienced tremendous hardships due to the spill. “The total impact of human suffering and ecological damage will not be seen for years,” he said.
In its response filed this month, the company denied responsibility for the spill, claiming the province gave its drivers the wrong directions. It also stated that it incurred $4 million in cleanup costs which it didn’t think it should have to pay.
The spill further resulted in a complaint to the BC ombudsman’s office by John Wittmayer, a volunteer coordinator with Quantum Murray during the cleanup.
He contends Interior Health didn’t do enough sampling, didn’t review health information from people who came into the resiliency centre, and lifted the do-not-use order too soon.
“Our community was traumatized by this event on many levels,” he wrote. “The people in the Slocan Valley have lost trust in IHA’s ability to meet health concerns.”
The health authority, however, insists it acted appropriately.
In September, environment minister Mary Polak visited the area to view clean-up efforts. She did not meet with affected residents but said spent “significant time” with regional directors who conveyed their concerns. She also defended not coming sooner, saying it could have just been a distraction.
Five months on, the spill’s long-term impact is still an open question. Clean-up crews were demobilized at the end of August, but both SNC Lavalin and the Slocan River Streamkeepers continue to test and monitor local rivers and creeks.
The fire on Perry Ridge that indirectly started it all grew to 65 hectares before being contained.