Six witnesses recounted their version through testimony and video of how they experienced the Ridley Island fire in June 2017 on day one of the trial against the Prince Rupert Port Authority.
The port authority faces four charges under B.C.’s Environmental Management Act for burning treated wood. The trial started at the provincial court in Prince Rupert this week.
The five day open fire took place from June 22-27, 2017. Following the incident the port apologized for the error calling it a misclassification of materials after wood from an 80-year-old dock was included in their site clearing. The charges dealt with on June 10, 2019, involve introducing waste into the environment, open burning of prohibited material and continued open burning for a period longer than permitted.
Gareth Scrivner, formerly a conservation officer based in Terrace, presented to the court what he filmed in the aftermath of the fire, on June 26, 2017. Scrivner was following up on the incident after two residents from Port Edward called in a complaint about black smoke emerging from Ridley Island.
The video contained footage of burning piles. Scrivner described that some sections of ash were as tall as he is at six feet.
“I was perhaps 50-100 feet away and the smell, along with the site of the burn, the smoke. The smell was overpowering, it was very very strong smell of creosote. I don’t think there’s many occasions where I’ve experienced such a strong smell from a large area like that,” Scrivner said.
Four witnesses, who were living in Port Edward during the time, all testified to seeing black smoke that emerged from Ridley Island on the Friday, which eventually turned a greyish colour on the last few days of burning. On the first day of the burning, the smoke was described as blowing up into the air toward Port Edward due to the direction of the wind.
“It was enough smoke to be concerned,” said witness Kerrie Kennedy who was living in Port Edward with her husband and child, then four years old, during the fire. “I didn’t think it was cool. It should have been disposed of in a different manner other than burning.”
Kennedy, who has bronchular asthma, recalls having to use her puffer to assist with her breathing. The three other witnesses, Carrie Thorpe, Alice Krutal, and Kevin Graham all describe some form of throat irritation or difficulty breathing. Scrivner also said when he investigated the fire, the smoke caused his eyes to sting.
The four residential witnesses also said they encountered a terrible smell, which did not disappear even when they tried to close their windows.
The defence asked the witnesses if the smell and irritation could have been attributed to work from the nearby coal terminal, trains passing through town, or if the smell could have been asphalt. But the witnesses said it was unlikely it was from these other sources.
Steve Milum, a witness who was working as the conservation manager for the North Pacific Cannery at the time, said he saw the dark smoke on his drive into work.
“I was familiar to creosote, we work with it a lot at the site, we have the old creosote piles and need to cut them up,” Milum said. “It definitely seemed like a petroleum-based fire.”
Day two of the trial continues on June 11 in Prince Rupert, with the cross examination of Scrivner’s testimony.
There were several Prince Rupert Port Authority employees who were present during the trial. Ken Veldman, VP public affairs and sustainability, who issued the public apology in 2017, spoke to The Northern View at the end of day one.
“We’ve acknowledged an error that was made, the burn in June 2017 and the process of the trial will reveal those facts. I can say that PRPA works v hard and takes a lot of pride in our evn’t management practices and we’re always in a mode of continuous improvement, but beyond that with the case being heard I don’t think we have more to offer at that point,” he said.
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