A Watson Lake couple say their drinking water is contaminated with oil and gas after the municipality and the territory ignored spills on their neighbour’s property for more than two years.
“Our water smells like oil. It has an oily texture. We can’t even wash our clothes in it because they come out smelling of gas,” said Thomas Rueck.
Rueck and his wife Sonja live at 124 Adela Trail in Watson Lake. They say their neighbour, Pat Stevenson, has been storing junk cars, old oil heaters and uncovered buckets of used oil on his land and the adjoining public land for years, and the Ruecks are worried that his mess could have contaminated the groundwater and their well.
According to town officials, Stevenson no longer lives in Watson Lake. He could not be reached for comment by press time.
“We were so concerned about our health that we called the town bylaw officer. He came and together we did a walk across the property and showed him all the polluted and contaminated areas,” Thomas said.
“He promised the Town of Watson Lake would clean up everything before August 2012, and that he would inform Environment Yukon, but nothing was done,” Thomas said.
They complained again to the town and to Yukon government officials, and say their concerns went unheeded.
By October 2012, months after the bylaw officer’s promise to clean it up, they had yet to receive a reply at all.
Six months and numerous letters later, they were contacted by Charmaine Thom from Environment Yukon. She met with the Ruecks and representatives from the town. The message: nothing would be done until it could be proven that the Ruecks well was contaminated.
In early June 2013, a water test on the Ruecks well showed that the water was drinkable.
But then things got worse. Later that month the town agreed to let a private contractor conduct vehicle-crushing operations on the public land immediately behind the junk-filled area. The town advertised, telling people they could bring their scrap cars to the area to be crushed and recycled. It promised that the contractor would be qualified to do the work and would clean up the site afterwards.
Michael Lexow owns the Air Force Lodge, which also shares a property line with the junkyard. When the crushing operation began, he said at first there were no problems, until one night he was woken up at 3 a.m. to a very loud noise.
The car-crush operator was using a forklift to flip cars over, punch holes in their gas tanks, and drain gas and oil onto the ground, he said.
“Imagine a big front-end loader, and he was rolling the cars over on their sides, and punching holes in them, then rolling them back again. It was done on purpose. It was very deliberate,” Lexow said.
At first, the operator didn’t see Lexow and continued his work. When Lexow interrupted him, the man got very upset and started yelling, Lexow said.
Lexow also complained to the town and to Environment Yukon and the next month the government issued a spill order forcing the contractor to stop the crushing operation and clean up the spills.
But according to the Ruecks, the only clean-up that was done was pushing a pile of gravel over the contaminated sites.
This spring, the Ruecks said they started to notice the smells and an oily taste in their water. When they again complained, the Ruecks say the government told them to stop drinking the water, but said it was up to the family to have their well tested. If they could prove contamination and prove who was responsible for it, they could consider legal action, they say they were told.
Environment Yukon did not respond by deadline to questions about the spill order or the clean-up. Environment spokeswoman Nancy Campbell said that water quality is the Yukon Health Department’s jurisdiction.
When asked about whether the crushing operation should have been allowed in the first place, Campbell said decisions about the “appropriate use” of land fall to the municipality.
But Health Department spokeswoman Marcelle Dube said the department is only responsible for public drinking water sources. They can provide analysis of private wells, but the testing and remediation costs fall to the homeowner.
For it’s part, the Town of Watson Lake disputes that there is any contamination at all.
“I don’t accept the premise that it’s contaminated until it is proven that it is,” said Watson Lake CAO Stephen Conway.
Even so, the town has offered to have another water test done even though it’s not obliged to. When the results come back, the town can decide how to move forward, Conway said.
Conway maintains that the town has been responsive to the Ruecks complaints all along, but that it doesn’t hold responsibility for environmental enforcement. That, he said, is the purview of the territorial government.
“We don’t believe we are liable in any way,” he said. “We are trying to accommodate the Ruecks.”
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