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Water contamination leaves Watson Lake family with few options

A family in Watson Lake whose private well has been contaminated with oil are continuing to search for answers.

A family in Watson Lake whose private well has been contaminated with oil are continuing to search for answers.

Sonja and Thomas Rueck say they began notifying the town and Environment Yukon of their concerns two years ago when they say their neighbour, Pat Stevenson, began storing old cars, motors and uncovered buckets of oil on his property immediately adjacent to theirs.

Stevenson promised the town the site would be cleaned properly but, according the Ruecks, no clean up ever took place. Stevenson has since left town. The News has been unable to reach him for comment.

When Environment Yukon responded to their complaints, they said nothing could be done until the Ruecks could prove their water was contaminated.

In early June 2013, before a vehicle crushing operation began, a water test on the Ruecks well showed that the water was drinkable, but as the crushing operation went on the conditions worsened.

Eventually, the town of Watson Lake conducted their own test. Those results showed hydrocarbons.

“The first test that was conducted by Environment Yukon, in our opinion, did not follow proper protocol,” said Stephen Conway, Watson Lake’s chief administrative officer.

Conway said that when a well is tested it has to be pumped for eight hours, allowing the aquifer to flow into the well. The government did not follow that step, he said.

“They simply took a sample from a tap so their tests showing no hydrocarbons we question. In our test, we did follow protocol.”

As did the Ruecks, paying nearly $600 for an independent test.

“We don’t trust anyone anymore,” said Sonja. “They tell us so many things but they don’t do anything. We saw how the guy took the sample and we wanted to do it right.”

The test completed by the Ruecks also revealed hydrocarbons.

The family sent the results to Environment Yukon, which responded in an email, saying that although their were hydrocarbons in the water, the concentration fell below the relevant standards for drinking water.

But when the Ruecks pressed for confirmation that the water was safe to drink and launder with, Environment Yukon had another message.

“The Yukon chief medical officer of health recommends not consuming water that is contaminated by hydrocarbons,” said the email. “It is your decision if you wish to continue drinking or using the water from your well or to find another source.”

Last June, during the crushing operation, an environment protection order was issued by the Department of Environment.

“There was allegedly a spill ... and they put in various stipulations that the crushing operation had to meet,” said Conway. That included cleaning the site properly, something that never took place, the Ruecks maintain.

The investigation into the crushing operation and the alleged spill began in July 2013 and is still ongoing. Part of the investigation is determining the source of the spill.

“The source of that hydrocarbon contamination is not known,” said Melissa Madden, spokesperson for Environment Yukon.

It remains unclear when the investigation will yield any conclusions.

The Ruecks say they’ve been trying to get further information about the investigation but haven’t been able to get anywhere.

“It doesn’t matter who we phoned or wrote to. You cannot get any information about the follow-up to that spill order,” said Sonja. “There’s always some kind of paper trail. We think they didn’t follow up and enforce the spill order.”

In the meantime, the Ruecks are showering at the local recreation centre, washing their clothes at the laundromat and hauling drinking water in containers to their house.

“We started with our complaints over two years ago,” said Sonja.

“We don’t know what else we can do. We feel totally powerless. You see what is coming, you see all the polluting going on over there and you can’t do a damn thing.”

Environment Yukon says it is up the Ruecks to determine if they want to use their water.

“We respond to spills and deal with investigations into said spills,” said Nancy Campbell, communications manager with Environment Yukon.

“It’s up the owner to make that decision themselves,” said Madden. “That being said, we do know the Yukon chief medical officer recommended not consuming any water that may be contaminated with hydrocarbons.”

Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, said “if you can smell or taste hydrocarbons in the water, it’s a good indication you shouldn’t be drinking that water, regardless of what the measured level is.”

Hanley said it’s difficult to find studies on the safe threshold of consuming hydrocarbons in water, as most studies address lethal doses or acute toxicities. Those studies find that the health risks range from nervous system problems to damage to the brain, nerves, kidneys, lungs and skin contamination.

Conway, who said he has attempted to meet with Ruecks in the past but was rebuked, isn’t sure what else the town of Watson Lake can do to help.

“Unless we have discussions with the Ruecks, I don’t know what we can do,” he said. “Other than encourage the Yukon government to not be so stringent in not taking action, because it does not meet the threshold for the definition of contamination. Other than lobbying on their behalf I don’t see what we can do.”

The Ruecks don’t know what their next move is either, and are tired of being kept in the dark.

“We really don’t know how to fix it. We are just hanging in. The only thing left would be to sue the Yukon government, but to be honest we cannot afford that,” Sonja said.

“This can happen to anyone in the Yukon with a private well. We had bad luck. I think people should know that and be aware of that.”

Contact Sam Riches at