Angry residents packed an overflowing hall and spilled into the parking lot in the southeastern B.C. community of Winlaw, while others trekked for more than a kilometre past parked cars in hopes of answers on the safety of their water supply.
But the answers did not come for the people of Slocan Valley on Tuesday night, when they learned it will be at least five days, maybe 10, before they can use their water in any form following a jet-fuel spill into Lemon Creek.
That means no swimming, no floating, no watering, and no bathing or drinking of water from the creek, Slocan River and Kootenay River above or below Brilliant Dam to the confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers at Castlegar, about 600 kilometres east of Vancouver.
“I do want to acknowledge to everybody the severity of this incident,” said Interior Health Authority medical health officer Dr. Trevor Corneil, one of 10 panelists presenting information from various ministries, local governments and the RCMP.
Corneil told residents the health authority will assess the risk to the population and do what it can to support their safety.
Last Friday, a tanker travelling on a narrow gravel road flipped into Lemon Creek, spilling 35,000 litres of jet fuel. The driver was on his way to deliver the load to a landing site being used by helicopters fighting a nearby forest fire.
“It really was something that nobody would ever want to happen,” Corneil said. “Along with that, of course, came the significant inconvenience, the evacuation, the road closures.”
Within hours, an evacuation order for 700 people was expanded to include 2,500 in the Slocan Valley as fumes pervaded the air and fuel contaminated Lemon Creek, Slocan River and the Kootenay River to the Brilliant Dam. The highway was opened at noon on Saturday, but a ban on all water use remains in place.
The do-not-use order will not be removed until Interior Health is sure the water is safe, Corneil told the crowd, adding that will be determined by how quickly the river looks clean and when test results are received.
In the meantime, residents complained of health problems including skin rashes, fumes in furniture and clothing, and lack of water for livestock, poor communication and economic hardships.
Corneil told one woman it likely isn’t safe to keep her sick daughter in the family home.
“People should not be buying vegetables from commercial farms,” Corneil said, while urging another woman not to sell her produce at any market.
In the majority of cases, well water is not affected but shallow wells close to the creek or rivers, particularly those in gravel or sandy soils, may be fouled.
Residents should not use well water if there is a fuel smell in the well or at any tap, Corneil said.
Wayne Smook, vice-president of Executive Flight Services, the Calgary company that owns the tanker, apologized to residents.
“I am offering an apology,” he said. “I know water and the watershed itself is very important to the valley. We are committed to doing the job right,” he said to applause. “We do apologize. It was an accident.”
However, he did not offer an explanation of what caused the accident, nor more details on the driver.
That will be left to a Ministry of Forests, which is conducting an investigation because the incident occurred on a forest service road.
Monitoring the rivers and removal of dead fish and animals is ongoing, the crowd was told.
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