A tanker truck driver took a wrong turn and drove past two “road closed” signs before the vehicle tumbled off the road, spilling 35,000 litres of jet fuel into a creek in a remote area of British Columbia’s West Kootenay region, a Ministry of Transportation spokeswoman says.
“It is our understanding that he did not intend to travel on this road,” Kate Trotter said.
The signs are in “very good condition and visible to all road users,” she said in an e-mailed statement Monday.
Pictures and maps supplied by the ministry indicate several signs are posted along Lemon Creek Road, warning drivers that it is inaccessible and unmaintained.
One “road closed” sign about 700 metres before the truck fell into the river extends halfway across the gravel area, appearing to leave little room for large vehicles to squeeze past.
But Roger Nickel, the base manager for Executive Flight Centre in Revelstoke, B.C., the company that owns and operates the tanker, said drivers often go past such swing signs and find the fuel drop-off point just beyond the signs.
He added that the Ministry of Forestry said it would have someone there to meet the driver to direct him and no one showed up.
Officials from that ministry declined to comment because their investigation is continuing.
Dozens of homes were evacuated Friday after the spill, and Environment Ministry officials have said dead fish were later found in Lemon Creek.
B.C.’s Environment Minister said it’s difficult to draw conclusions from “an incident that was very out of the ordinary.”
“Once [cleanup] is dealt with we would be moving on to look at what, if anything, could have been done to prevent this with respect to the truck,” Mark Polak said. “In terms of overall policy, we’d be not wise to be basing a lot of … thinking on that one incident.”
NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert said the spill highlights how, even with good safety protocols in place, one error can lead to devastating consequences.
“When we’re talking about mass increase of exports of dangerous cargo, whether that’s oil, gas or other materials, we can’t assume just because somebody says it’s safe it means that it is,” he said. “We have to remain forever vigilant.”
Helicopters fighting a wildfire in a remote area of B.C. were waiting for the fuel when the tanker rolled into the creek.
“It’s typical during a fiery event that many different roads, whether it be forestry or logging roads, are used to get to the various sites,” Executive Fight Centre’s senior vice-president, Wayne Smook, said.
Depending on the severity of the fire season, Mr. Smook said dozens or more trucks may be dispatched during a single year. The tanker that crashed into Lemon Creek was the only truck delivering fuel to helicopters battling a wildfire burning near the town of Winlaw, B.C.
In a news release, Mr. Smook apologized to residents for any hardships the crash may have caused.
Noxious fumes filled the air as the jet fuel poured into the creek, forcing a temporary widespread evacuation affecting 1,300 people. Residents and farmers could still not use the water for any reason as of Monday afternoon.
“Do not drink, do not cook, do not bathe, do not go out into the river,” said medical health officer Trevor Corneil.
The Interior Health Authority also advised that locally grown fruit and vegetables should be thoroughly washed with alternate water sources, and fish from the rivers should not be eaten. It said wells close to the creek or rivers, particularly those in gravel or shallow sandy soils, may be contaminated.
Dr. Corneil said ingestion of jet fuel can lead to nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The fuel can also “cause exacerbation of any chronic diseases of the nervous system, the respiratory system or the cardiovascular system,” he said.
However, Dr. Corneil said that although the effects of the fuel may be severe, as long as contact is brief the body can generally recover quickly.
Provincial environment officer Rick Wagner said tests are being done to determine whether the fish died because of the fuel spill or some other reason, and results should be available in the next couple of days.
Representatives from multiple government agencies, as well as the company, are expected to answer questions about the incident at a meeting in Winlaw on Tuesday night.