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Health impacts probed after Chilliwack substation fire

Crews continue to clean up at the BC Hydro substation on Lickman Road Wednesday afternoon. - JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS
Crews continue to clean up at the BC Hydro substation on Lickman Road Wednesday afternoon.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS

There's no real timeline yet for restoration and remediation at the site of the Atchelitz Substation fire in Chilliwack.

Cleanup and investigation is continuing this week at the BC Hydro facility on Lickman Road where a transformer containing 115,000 litres of oil burst into flames last Friday.

A pressing question for local residents and farmers is any potential impact on human or animal health, from the plume of smoke that burned for three hours, or the residual contaminants left behind after the fire.

BC Hydro has hired environmental consultants SNC Lavelin to conduct extensive sampling of surface water and soil, as well "smoke plume modelling" and off-site sampling to measure exposure to the environment and human health.

Agricultural property owners in the surrounding area are being contacted by Ministry of Agriculture reps about potential impacts to their crops or grazing lands from both the smoke and spilled oil.

The question remains about the cause of the fire. Any word on possible causes?

"No there isn't," replied David Lebeter, BC Hydro's vice president of field operations in a phone interview with the Progress. "We'll be starting the investigation this week."

The transformer was insulated with a type of mineral oil, he said.

PCBs were widely used as coolant fluids for transformers in the past, but the technology has changed.

"The oil in transformers is not manufactured with PCBs but there is a trace level present, at less than five parts per million," he said.

Crews were working around the clock last weekend to remove spilled oil from a nearby ditch. The oil was contained to a 100-metre section using a containment booms, and absorbent material. A vacuum process by specialized equipment sucked up the resulting mix of water and oil.

"That will continue until the oil is collected," Lebeter said.

Early on the BC Hydro spokesman told the media it would be almost impossible to quantify how much oil had burned, spilled into the ditch or could be recovered.

The mix of oil and water removed from the ditch was being transported to a specialized treatment facility to separate the products.

"There's no timeline as it is a complex process," said Lebeter. "We will continue collecting material at that location until we are satisfied there is none left."

Concerns about environmental and health effects of the spilled oil and toxic smoke from the 25-year-old transformer are being followed closely by staggering array of agencies and government reps.

All measures to ensure safety and environmental due diligence were followed in the wake of the fire, BC Hydro officials said.

Giving input about the scope of environmental assessment are: Ministries of Agriculture and Health, Environment Canada and B.C. Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Health and Fraser Health, Canadian Food Inspection Agency, City of Chilliwack, City of Abbotsford, FVRD, Public Safety Canada, along with WorkSafe BC following up on the incident in relation to the BC Hydro workers.

Twelve workers who were on-site were accounted for shortly after the fire broke out.

Officials are now saying it could take a while before all the impacts are known.

Government ministries, stakeholders and agencies have been in regular contact by way of conference calls to get updates on the progress and work completed done to date, and as a forum to offer feedback and input.

jfeinberg@theprogress.com

twitter.com/CHWKjourno

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