Opinion

Anatomy of a Jet Fuel Spill

A resident recounts the accident that struck Slocan Valley, and the aftermath that hasn't ended.

By Nelle Maxey 7 Aug 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Nelle Maxey is a Slocan Valley resident with an interest in water and the ecosystem, community and economy it supports. She is retired. Like all the other grandparents and parents of the Slocan Valley, she hopes to see the valley’s children paddling happily in the river before summer’s end.

A version of this article first appeared on The Common Sense Canadian.

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An abandoned tanker carrying jet fuel for forestry helicopters battling summer blazes lays on its side leaking contaminants into Slocan Valley's Lemon Creek. Photo credit: Kevin Kinsella.

Friday, July 26 was a beautiful, sunny summer day in the Slocan Valley in the West Kootenay region of B.C.

At the height of the tourist season bed and breakfasts, restaurants and retail stores served the many visitors. River recreation was at its height. Kayaks and canoes, rafts and tubes filled the Slocan River. Swimmers packed the public and private beaches along the river. Other folks were in their gardens, assessing if the beans were ready for canning and the garlic was ready for digging. Market gardeners and local greenhouses were irrigating their crops and picking produce for local and regional sale.

The only unsettling activity was the drone of helicopters flying over the Winlaw area, dumping water scooped from the river on the two-day-old Perry Ridge fire. And then disaster struck.

At about 1:30 that afternoon, a large tanker truck delivering jet fuel for the Ministry of Forests firefighting helicopters tumbled into Lemon Creek and dumped approximately 33,000 litres of jet fuel A1 into the water. The swift-flowing Lemon Creek pours into the Slocan River downstream of the spill.

The helicopter staging area where the fuel was to be delivered is reached by Uris road north of the Lemon Creek bridge. The tanker was on Lemon Creek Road south of the bridge. This is a very narrow, decommissioned logging road that had been closed to traffic due to slides and crumbling banks. One report said the driver was to be met by Forestry personnel who would direct him to the helicopter staging area, but they never showed up. The driver proceeded on his own up Lemon Creek Road, past two signs that the road was closed, eventually found a place to turn around and was on his way back down to Highway 6 when the road bank gave way under the weight of the tanker.

The driver, not seriously injured after the accident, scrambled up the 15-foot bank and walked back approximately four kilometres to Highway 6 where a passing car picked him up so he could report the accident. RCMP arrived on the scene at approximately 3:30 in the afternoon, although the fumes were so bad they could not approach the area. Once it was confirmed the truck was carrying jet fuel, the regional health authority was notified at 6 p.m. on Friday evening.

A few hours later, the first evacuation order was issued for 800 residents within 300 meters of Lemon Creek and the Slocan River for three km upstream and downstream of the spill. But it took many hours before the volunteer firemen and search and rescue teams could be organized to notify residents of the evacuation order. The first phone calls went out around midnight. And the volunteers began going door-to-door in the most heavily affected areas. They stayed at it all night and into the next morning.

Meanwhile back at the spill site, officials estimate the tanker released the fuel in about 40 minutes. The fuel slick reached the Winlaw Bridge sometime around 6 p.m. (about the same time the Health Authority was notified of the accident). Children swimming in the river near Appledale just north of Winlaw were later reported to have skin rashes. Canoeists in the area also reported health effects. Residents along the river between Winlaw and Lemon Creek reported that the smell was so strong by 5 p.m. that they closed up their homes and left the area. Within 24 hours of the accident, the slick had traveled 60 km: down the Slocan River and into the Kootenay River to just above of the Brilliant Hydroelectric Dam at Castlegar. The first boom to stop the slick was established there on Saturday afternoon.

The plume was two to three km long and 30 to 50 metres wide. A Ministry of Environment spokesperson said a boom had been put in place at about 1:30 p.m. on Saturday just above the Brilliant Dam. Its effectiveness in containing the fuel was being monitored. They didn’t know at that time if fuel had entered the dam works.

The smell test

Within hours of the first evacuation notice issued by the regional health authority, the evacuation was expanded to include everyone in the valley. Anyone living within a three km radius of the river between Lemon Creek and Playmore Junction (where Highway 6 joins Highway 3 to Nelson and Castlegar) were to evacuate, affecting 2,500 residents.

As the fuel progressed rapidly down the river, health authorities had become worried that sleeping people would not smell the fuel. In other words, the "smell test" was ineffective. Emergency Services for the district made phone calls to some residents, and Volunteer Fire Departments began knocking on doors. The evacuation order included a Do Not Use water order to "all users of water supplies within 10 kilometres downstream of the spill". The later wording of the order said wells were okay to use. This was revised again to say shallow wells near the river might be affected.

A week after the accident, the order explains that if your creek surface water or well water doesn’t smell like jet fuel, then it is okay to use. The "smell test" is the only test for private water supplies that don’t come directly from the rivers or from Lemon Creek. The evacuation order also contained the following statement: "Jet fuel poses an immediate health risk to people. Exposure can burn skin, inhalation can harm respiratory systems and may cause brain damage. It is also dangerous to consume."

The effective boundaries of the evacuation and a timeline of events is shown below.

582px version of Fuel spill evacuation timeline
Credit: West Coast Native News.

Fifty volunteer firefighters from the four valley fire departments worked overnight and into Saturday to notify residents of the evacuation. Even though they had help, they had to concentrate on people closest to the river and spill site. They notified over 800 residents in all. As rural communities go, much of the notification went by word of mouth to neighbours, family and friends, all in the dark of night. And many residents in the north end of the valley had left even before the order was issued due to the heavy concentration of the fumes.

By noon on Saturday, the fumes had dissipated enough that the evacuation order was lifted. Residents trickled back into the valley all day Saturday. At the north end of the valley especially, some returned to homes that were saturated with the fuel smell, and some returned to contaminated gardens and hay fields and to livestock whose watering tanks had a layer of fuel on top of the water.

Most of the valley settled down and most residents assumed the scare was over. Then the town hall meeting was held.

Many questions, few answers

On July 30, hundreds of residents from all areas of the valley jammed Winlaw Hall to hear presentations from local government, provincial authorities, the company (EFC) and their consultant and to ask questions. The handouts did not contain contact information or the names of the speakers. At first, many residents did not have their questions answered as they were told they were not on topic. Then the format was changed and residents were allowed to ask questions of any panelist. Many questions required responses from multiple panelists.

The health official immediately declared the serious nature of this event and explained the reasons for the evacuation. Though benzene was not a component of the Jet Fuel A1 spilled in the creek, kerosene (the fuel) is dangerous by breathing fumes, through skin contact or by ingestion. This applies to humans and animals. Aquatic life is at special risk. Jet Fuel A1 is listed to have chronic toxic effect on aquatic ecosystems.

Residents were informed the Do Not Use water order would stay in effect for five to 10 days at a minimum. The order applied to recreation in the river and to water use from the river and Lemon Creek. All such water systems should be shut down so the contaminated water was not drawn into pipes and hot water heaters.

Other surface water users from the creeks not affected directly should use their own judgement and apply the "smell test" to their water. Deep wells were unlikely to be affected. Shallow wells along the river should not be used as they may be contaminated. This was the first time some residents had heard the information about shallow wells and surface creeks. They were also told to wash all vegetables three times for three minutes before use with potable water (a catch-22 for residents without potable water supplies) and not to buy local produce.

As residents poured into the line-up for the mic and began asking questions and telling their stories, the consequences of the spill and the fact that little help had been available was immediately apparent. The problems were most severe at the north end of the valley from Lemon Creek to Winlaw. Homes were contaminated with the fuel smell. Fruit trees and vegetables were contaminated. Hay fields and pastures were contaminated, no water was available to water livestock, poultry or gardens. Many were without any water for drinking, washing dishes, flushing toilets or showering. Similar water problems prevailed all along the river to the lower valley.

The meeting was held five days after the spill and potable water tanks had been set up in four locations in the valley only that day.

Residents requested help and information. They requested help with decontaminating their homes, finding potable water supplies, water and well testing, food testing including milk, meat and eggs, vegetables and fruit, showering stations and porta-potties. They asked that public information stations be set up, that water and air monitoring data be made public, that information regarding Jet Fuel A1 toxicity be available, adequate signage on the river (youth were seen in the river on the day of the meeting), use of local volunteers, information regarding effects of contaminated water bucketed from river being dumped on local watershed in fire-prevention activities.

The aftermath

Eight days after the spill, the Interior Health Authority posted an updated Do Not Use water order: "Until further notice, a Do Not Use order for Drinking Water and Recreational Use remains in effect for Lemon Creek, Slocan River and Kootenay River above and below Brilliant Dam. Fuel is still visible in the containment booms and along the shoreline," it read.

Again, the smell test applied to garden vegetables, fruit, eggs, and dairy milk -- "SAFE to consume as long as they do not smell like fuel or have a fuel sheen."

Residents learned in the Nelson News online that approximately 1,000 litres of contaminated material was recovered, and the company responsible for the spill provided some information on its website Lemon Creek Response. An update posted on August 3 demonstrated that some of the residents’ requests were being fulfilled, such as the establishment of a "resiliency centre" with a shower, lavatory and emergency support services, the hiring by the local Streamkeepers of a world-renowned expert in spill clean-up operations to assess the accident, and more.

I visited the spill site and Lemon Creek on August 3. The water and the rocks in Lemon Creek still smell strongly of jet fuel. There was still some sheen visible and emulsion (milky-looking jet fuel and water mix) under rocks in the creek at the Lemon Creek bridge on Highway 6. The road had been remediated just before the accident site where fuel spilled from the tanker as it was pulled from the creek the previous week. There was no fuel on the road at the actual location where the truck went off. There was water from seeps in the rock face running across the road at that location. Workers at the site agreed with my assessment that the water run-off contributed to weakening the bank that collapsed under the truck resulting in the fuel spill.

Yesterday, 12 days after the spill, all Do Not Use water restrictions on the Kootenay River above and below Brilliant Dam were removed. However, they remain in effect for Lemon Creek and Slocan River.

The media reports that the clean-up is going as expected, though no one is certain how much longer it will take…

The greatest hardship for residents is the water use restriction. As current cleanup involves flushing fuel from the banks of Lemon Creek for collection in downstream booms on both the creek and the river, it will be a while before these restrictions are lifted. Watering livestock and gardens is still an issue for many as well. The lack of information on the air and water monitoring data is also wearing on residents. Above all is the lack of any official word on whether or how badly the river and aquatic life have been damaged.

But rural folk are resilient and neighbourly. We are all working to help each other as best we can. We patiently or impatiently await future developments.  [Tyee]

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