When Beth Patterson and her partner Nels Olson moved to Avola last July, they were pleased to have a creek running through their 18.5-acre property to source their water.
But just a few weeks after settling in, they were surprised to see brown water “running like chocolate milk” out of their taps.
Patterson investigated, walking to where the creek splits off into the property’s sifting ponds. All the way along the creek, the water was muddy, as if there had been a slide. The next day, Olson walked north, following the creek up steep, overgrown terrain.
Eventually, he came across a new logging road that was being constructed above the creek about two kilometres from their property.
|Beth Patterson and Nels Olson's water supply was like "chocolate milk" after it was contaminated. (Submitted photo)
He said he didn’t see any retaining walls or other measures to prevent runoff or breakage from falling into the creek below.
“Chunks of the road that they were building were literally sliding down the hill into our drinking water,” said Patterson.
The couple said they hadn’t been notified that any logging or construction would be happening near their property. Patterson said she called the previous owner, who told them BC Timber Sales (BCTS) had notified them that they were going to be logging a section of land north of the property.
However, to her recollection, they weren’t supposed to be working yet, she said, noting she had given the couple’s information to BCTS.
“There’s just no way they couldn’t have gotten hold of us,” said Olson. “The previous owner gave them our number, names. I personally grew up in the same neighbourhood as the main foreman here … there’s no excuse they were doing what they did.”
Patterson and Olson tracked down contacts at BCTS, who said they would send out a representative to assess the situation. They received a call the next day from BCTS who told them the sediment fencing had fallen down but it had been fixed.
BCTS also showed up with an excavator to clean out one of the settling ponds and helped to flush out the irrigation system and their water heater.
|A settling pond on the property of Beth Patterson and Nels Olson in Avola. (Submitted photo)
However, she said their water quality was never the same, and they feel it’s unsafe and unsanitary.
“It just coats everything,” she said. “When I do a load of laundry, the amount of sediment on the inside is insane. I have to vacuum it out every single time.”
The couple submitted three natural resource violation tickets for water quality and paid to have their water tested. When their water tests showed high levels of E. coli, heavy metals and uranium, they reached out to the Forest Practices Board (FPB).
Patterson said BCTS paid for more water tests. Since the initial testing and the system flushes, she said subsequent tests have shown a decrease in heavy metal levels but the turbidity is still higher than the recommended level for drinking water.
And a few months later, in November, BCTS agreed to supply the couple with drinking water, dropping off about 10 20-litre jugs of filtered water every few weeks. Patterson said they suggested the couple install a well, but she argued the water supply would come from the same place, which had been contaminated.
“We’re sort of at a stalemate at this point,” said Patterson. “They haven’t provided a plan to fix it.”
BC Timber Sales did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this story. The Times staff reached out numerous times through email and left multiple voicemails with their head office location in Victoria. However, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said on behalf of BCTS that they were unable to comment due to the ongoing investigation.
The couple reached out to environmental agencies and legal aid programs. They were turned down by many groups but finally received help from West Coast Environmental Aid and received grant funds to pay for an environmental lawyer, Carla Conkin.
Conkin said they’ve been trying to have a conversation with the province to deal with the problem before initiating any formal legal action. She did maintain that they will move forward with any legal remedies available.
In a case like theirs’, she said, there really isn’t an issue in dispute.
|Pieces of a logging road constructed north of Beth Patterson and Nels Olson's property in Avola has fallen, dropping sediment into the land below. (Submitted photo)
“It’s ‘Patterson and Olson had a water supply before, and now they don’t,’” said Conkin.
She added the case isn’t just about Patterson and Olson, but is a concern for anyone who owns rural property where there could be logging nearby. It’s a David and Goliath situation, Conkin noted – a couple who bought their dream property, versus the government.
“The bottom line simply is that they have no access to water … and the province has been silent on this,” she said. “This isn’t something that should go to court, this is a matter of dealing and doing the right thing and there’s just no question of fault.”
The FPB confirmed to the Times that they are investigating a complaint from Avola residents “about the impact of road construction on their water.”
A site visit was completed, and those involved were interviewed. Once the investigation is complete, the board said it will review and release it to the public along with any recommendations on improving forest practices and planning. The FPB cannot levy fines or award penalties. The report is expected in early summer.
The Times reached out to Interior Health, and a spokesperson said the health authority did not receive a request related to the property, and added that it doens’t regularly monitor or inspect private water systems. They did say, however, that “environmental health officers will review specific health concerns if they are raised about individual sources.”
The Ministry of FLNROD said in a statement it had received a lawyer’s letter written to them regarding a property in Avola, and as the matter was referred to the ministry’s counsel for investigation, they were unable to comment.
As the weather warms up, Patterson and Olson are worried construction of the road will continue. They’re also concerned about a 30-person camp to be built in the Avola area this fall or in 2023. If BCTS continues its project, they could be crossing Avola Creek, where a lot of townspeople source their water.
“Everyone else in town is going to be dealing with the exact same thing that we’re dealing with,” said Patterson. “We’re the canary in the coal mine.”