Last month, after years of delays, Nelson Provincial Court closed the books on a Fisheries Act pollution case against a company for the spill of jet fuel into Lemon Creek and the Slocan River.
On July 26, 2013, a fuel tanker owned by Executive Flight Services (EFS) mistakenly drove up an abandoned logging road and rolled over into Lemon Creek, spilling about 35,000 litres of highly toxic jet fuel. The company was supplying fuel to a BC Forest Services helicopter landing site used in wildfire suppression.
Lemon Creek is a cold mountain stream that flows from Kokanee Glacier Park to join the Slocan River downstream of Slocan Lake. Attempts to mitigate the spill were slow and largely ineffective and all fish, invertebrates, and many birds and mammals within several kilometers of the creek were killed.
Local residents evacuated their homes and suffered contamination of their domestic and irrigation waters. They felt the spill was due to negligence and were frustrated that government action was inadequate to address this environmental disaster.
Weeks after the spill, Marilyn Burgoon, a Slocan Valley watershed activist, googled “jet fuel spills” and discovered VAPOR – a Fraser River group established in 2011 to keep jet fuel tankers out of the Fraser River estuary.
Once contacted, VAPOR, feeling compelled to help the people in the Slocan, were soon in the area inspecting the spill area and sharing information on how private informant Fisheries Act charges can be laid.
In that government seemed unwilling to hold anyone legally accountable, Ms. Burgoon laid a private informant charge under the Fisheries Act. The government agencies then took over the case but once again the matter stalled. At the time, the DFO office in Nelson had been closed by the Harper government. It was fruitless trying to get BC to do anything since the BC Forest Service was culpable in the matter and the BC emergency program felt clean-up costs were adequate punishment.
Many letters were sent to prosecutors and finally the federal government took over the case. The fuel truck driver was found guilty – and punished with a $20,000 fine. EFS and the province were found not guilty but the prosecutors appealed that verdict. On February 21, 2020, Nelson Courts found EFS guilty for the discharge of a deleterious substance into fish-frequented waters and they were fined $175,000. The province was acquitted of all charges related to the spill.
It is sad to note that Marilyn died two months before the case was settled. Wherever she is I hope she appreciates that she stood for the right thing and had the courage to never give up. Such dedication by citizens is hard to find. Without such champions, government will often not be held accountable and will continue to be lax on environmental protection.
This is a case where one watershed group can reach across the province for help and obtain assistance from another ENGO. Although VAPOR was not able to convince governments to keep jet fuel tankers and a terminal out of the Fraser River, they did respond to a call for help and reach across the province to help Ms. Burgoon find environmental justice in the West Kootenays.
Otto E. Langer is a fisheries biologist and chair of Fraser Voices, organized to examine a Fraser River crossing in the Richmond-Delta area and to promote the sustainability of the Fraser River estuary.
The Watershed Sentinel deeply regrets the loss of Marilyn Burgoon.
This article appears in our April-May issue.