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Rattlesnakes and a fear of radioactive dust have one north Okanagan retirement community on edge.

Residents of Kal Pine Estates, a trailer park located on a hillside west of Oyama and 50 metres from a gravel pit known as Posh 1, say drilling and excavation activity has driven timber rattlesnakes out of the hillside and into their midst.

But what they fear the most is that the heavy equipment is sending radon-emitting dust into the air, onto their homes and into their lungs.

"Last summer, when the drilling and vibrations started in the gravel pit, it was the first time anyone had seen a rattlesnake inside the community," said John Templeton, a three-year resident of the trailer park overlooking aquamarine-hued Kalamalka Lake. "The snakes came down in the dozens.

"During the summer, the dust comes right down from the gravel pit and covers homes," Mr. Templeton said.

The pit, part of the construction industry's insatiable appetite for aggregates, began drilling activities last summer. Mr. Templeton, a former provincial corrections branch employee, says locals are "terrified" of the health risks it may pose. Kal Pine residents recently commissioned a radiation test of the gravel pit and are now asking the provincial government to perform their own tests to confirm or dispel fears.

On March 24, Kelowna architect and residential radon-gas-monitoring specialist Peter Chataway performed a radiation test of the pit at the request of Kal Pine residents. A scintillometer - a scientific device used to measure atmospheric disturbances caused by radiation - indicated radon gas levels as high as 500 becquerels per cubic metre in the gravel pit.

A becquerel is an internationally accepted measure of radioactivity.According to recently revised Health Canada safety guidelines for exposure to radon gas, 200 becquerels per cubic metre is the upper limit (it used to be 800). In the United States, safety levels are 150 becquerels per cubic metre.

However, David Morley, head of the Burnaby-based Environmental Radiation Assessment Program, part of the Environmental Health Division of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, believes the potential danger is being overestimated.

He says he knows the Kalamalka region, having done a radiation survey in the early 1980s for the department of highways. "The area has a well-known abnormality that runs between Oyama and south of Vernon," he said. "There is a pleasant-looking rock formation, but the rock has some uranium in it."

Mr. Morley says radon gas "dissipates rapidly" and does not usually concentrate in an outdoor environment.

Mr. Chataway, however, contends that, no matter how small, there is a risk. "These results should be enough to kick the authorities into gear and do the proper readings."

Mr. Morley says rather than worrying about the dust in the air, Kal Pine residents should worry about the ground under their feet.

"The risk to people living in that subdivision is associated with the natural radioactivity underneath their soil," Mr. Morley said.

"Depending on the composition of their soil, they may have a radon problem in their homes. The concentration is three or four times what it would be in Kelowna or other Interior towns."

According to residents, Kal Pine was built in the basin of a former gravel pit.

Mr. Templeton says he submitted the March scintillometer readings to the ministry of mines in early April along with a request for a formal radiation survey. He said he heard nothing from the province until May 16, at which time The Globe and Mail was investigating the story. Yesterday, Mr. Templeton received a letter from Kiersten Kirkpatrick, executive assistant to Kevin Krueger, Minister of State for Mining. The letter assured Mr. Templeton that "[m]nistry staff are looking into your concern and you will be receiving a letter from us shortly."

Calls to Mr. Krueger were not immediately returned.

Kal Pine's elderly residents, meanwhile, are uncertain about the safety of their homes and health, and say they are being surrounded by other gravel-pit operations.

Kal Pine manager Don Wakeham says there are currently five pits within a two-kilometre radius of Kal Pine and a sixth is on the way.

Mr. Wakeham says Kalamalka Lake, once named by National Geographic as one of the 10 most beautiful lakes in the world, is being denigrated. "In any given spot on Kalamalka Lake, you can look in a southwesterly direction and look into three to five fairly large gravel pits."

James Baker, mayor of the District of Lake Country, says changes made in 2002 to provincial mining legislation streamlined the gravel-pit application process and effectively tied the hands of municipalities. He believes the current radiation scare and pockmarked hillside could have been prevented had there been more local input.

Mr. Baker said Mr. Krueger would be touring Posh 1 and other area pits on June 18. He says he will be blunt when speaking with Mr. Krueger.

"These are mining activities that do not really suit this environment," Mr. Baker said. "It seems ludicrous that practices from the 18th century are carried into the 21st century."

Some Kal Pine residents say they can deal with rattlesnakes on their streets and under their porches, but most simply want to know whether the dust and gravel-pit activity pose a health risk, and they want assurances the region will not be completely excavated in the pursuit of aggregates.

"The B.C. timber rattlesnake is one of the shyest rattlers in the world. It is not likely to strike for no reason at all; you pretty much have to step on it," says resident Robert Roy, a former environmental officer for the Canadian Armed Forces. "We know about wildlife, but the radiation is something nobody knows anything about.

"This is fear of the unknown."