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UPDATED: Slocan Valley evacuated after fuel spill

A local state of emergency has been declared and an evacuation order issued in the Slocan Valley after a tanker truck carrying 35,000 litres of A1 jet fuel spilled its load into Lemon Creek Friday afternoon.

The evacuation, ordered by the provincial medical health officer and Regional District of Central Kootenay, now covers 800 meters on either side of Lemon Creek and the Slocan River from the junction of highways 3A and 6 at South Slocan to three kilometers north of Lemon Creek.

It initially only covered 300 meters on either side of those waterways but was expanded to three kilometers before being reduced at 8 a.m. Saturday. Residents living more than 800 meters away are now being allowed to return home.

Personnel from the Crescent Valley, Passmore, and Winlaw fire departments spent the night going door-to-door with the evacuation notice, assisted by local search and rescue.

Under the initial order, the regional district pegged the number of affected households at 800. It later increased to 2,500 homes, but has since been reduced. The evacuation was geographically broad for precautionary reasons, regional district information officer Bill Macpherson said.

"The concern is inhaling fumes hazardous to one's health and the explosive nature of jet fuel," Macpherson said. "It does dissipate fairly quickly. With any luck, this order will be short lived, but it's hard to say."

Officials now believe almost the entire tanker load of fuel was released into Lemon Creek and its tributaries.

"Jet fuel poses an immediate health risk to people," EmergencyInfoBC said in a statement posted on their website. "Exposure can burn skin, inhalation can harm respiratory systems and may cause brain damage. It is also dangerous to consume."

Emergency social services has arranged reception centres in Nelson at L.V. Rogers Secondary and Selkirk College's Tenth Street campus as well as in Slocan at W.E. Graham school.

"People on the ground say the fumes are so strong it's gagging them," regional fire chief Terry Swan said.

The truck was en route to a refuel site for helicopters fighting the Perry Ridge wildfire when it went off Lemon Creek forest service road and landed on its side in the creek. Residents suggest it took a wrong turn, because the base camp was not accessed via the logging road.

RCMP were first to respond, but couldn't get close due to the fumes. A hazardous materials team from Vancouver is working with other agencies to contain the spill, which is moving downstream. A two-to-three kilometer plume 30 to 50 meters wide is above the Brilliant dam, and crews are using a back eddy to contain it.

A Ministry of Environment official said Saturday they have staff on site and more en route, and have been providing air monitoring and technical advice on the containment and collection of the spilled fuel.

The tanker belonged to Calgary-based Executive Centre Flight Fuel Services Ltd., the ministry official said, adding they will be responsible for the clean-up. Nobody from the company was immediately available for comment Saturday.

So far there have been no reports of affected fish or wildlife, according to the environment ministry, but the regional district indicated the spill will affect water intakes below the Lemon Creek bridge. Residents within the evacuation area and within three kilometers of the affected watercourses have been asked not to use their water.

Further testing is ongoing downstream, although so far the regional district says sampling at several upstream junctions of the Slocan River has found little odour and relatively clear water.

Judy Derco of Lemon Creek Lodge said the incident happened around 3:30 or 4 p.m. Friday. The highway was closed for a while, she said, but motorists were later told to proceed at their own risk. Traffic is now being allowed to leave the valley, but not to enter.

Slocan resident Eric Winje who passed through the area this afternoon told the Star that a forestry employee on the Perry Siding bridge was watching for fuel coming down the Slocan River, which Lemon Creek flows into.

The fuel smell was very strong, Winje confirmed. "When we went across the bridge we rolled the window down and could smell it," he said. "But we couldn't see any sheen on the water."

It's not clear why the tanker tipped, but it remains in the creek. The driver was airlifted out with minor injuries, Winje said.

Lemon Creek forest service road is one of the access routes to Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park, but was closed beyond a certain point due to washouts and slides.

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