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Class-action suit seeks info from Lemon Creek evacuees

Nelson lawyer David M. Aaron (right) speaks with some of the attendees Sunday night during a meeting at the Slocan Park Community Hall. — John Boivin photo

People who were forced out of their homes by the Lemon Creek Fuel spill in 2013 are being asked to estimate what the evacuation cost them- and they’ve got until October 2 to do it.

About a dozen participants in the lawsuit met on Sunday night at the Slocan Park Community Hall to find out about the next step in the drawn-out search for compensation for the spill.

“You have been incredibly patient. We are four years into it and we are only getting started,” Nelson lawyer David M. Aaron told the group. He noted this was the first-ever environmental class-action lawsuit launched in British Columbia.

“You guys are breaking ground for environmental justice,” he told the group.

In July 2013, a tanker truck carrying 35,000 litres of helicopter fuel for firefighting efforts got lost on a logging road and overturned into Lemon Creek near Winlaw, spilling its contents into the creek.

About 2,700 properties in the river valley from WInlaw to Crescent Valley were forced out of their homes in the middle of the night, and many had to stay away for several days while crews cleaned up the toxic mess.

Last May a judge ruled that a valley farmer, Robert Kirk, could sue the government, trucker and transportation company for evacuation expenses, loss of enjoyment of property and harm to property values.  The judge ruled that anyone living in the affected area that night could join the lawsuit.

This class-action civil case is only one of many court proceedings now underway because of the spill. Aaron told the crowd the government was suing the contractors, contractors were suing each other and the government, and personal injury claims were also being considered.

“It’s an absolute rats’ nest of litigation,” he said. “The good news is the civil claim- for loss of property value, for loss of enjoyment of property and for evacuation expenses- that claim is moving forward and has been certified for a class action. “

The next step is to determine just what that claim will be- the scope of it, the number of people claiming different damages, and just what those damages were. To do that, Aaron and co-counsel Rosenberg Kosakoski, a Vancouver firm, have hired a private investigator to collect people’s stories. Ken Porth of Progress Investigations will take those stories and produce a report outlining people’s damages for the court to review.

“I’m on a fact-finding mission,” Aaron said. “We’re going to take the report, potentially to the court or potentially to the negotiating room, and make a claim for damages in respect to specific things.”

“For example, if you couldn’t harvest your crops,” Aaron continued. “Or you couldn’t do your laundry so you had to go into Nelson to do your laundry. Everyone has a story.”

The lawyer handed out an eight-page form for residents to fill out. While he says, he doesn’t need individuals’ receipts for proof now, he does need to know the kinds of things people will claim for.

The questionnaire only seeks information about personal expenses. Other issues, like the impact on property values, and environmental damage, are being handled by other researchers for the legal team.

But there’s not much time for locals to return the questionnaires.

“We really want them back in a week,” Aaron told the group. “So that Ken [Porth] can do a report so you can get compensated for these expenses.”

People who attended the meeting were hopeful they would see some good come from this step in the process.

Russell Hulbert lives about a kilometre from the spill site, on Lemon Creek, and says he can still occasionally smell the fumes from the jet fuel. While it’s getting better, he says this legal hangover is the worse part of the process.

“You don’t want to have this kind of thing in life. You don’t want to be having to fill out paperwork,” he said after the meeting. “It should have been dealt with a long time ago. This is hard on people.”

 “I know the community was really impacted by it,” stated Marilyn Burgoon, the local resident whose private criminal proceedings led to the federal government laying charges in the case. “When it’s your home, your water, people are quite furious about it.”

She says despite the long, drawn-out procedure, residents are determined to see it through.

“We don’t give up, ever. That’s the thing about standing up for what’s right. You just keep going forward,” she says.

Locals who are eligible to be part of the class-action suit can download and print a copy of the questionnaire from www.rklitigation.ca. Details on how to submit the information by October are on the form.

The next court date for the class-action case is in October. The criminal trial will also resume this fall.