With the trial over the 2013 fuel spill into Lemon Creek set to resume any week now, public scrutiny will again focus on the incident and its aftermath. Unfortunately, that's largely missing the point: it's what occurred in the moments before the spill that should resonate most with Slocan Valley residents; specifically, the fuel truck driver's inability to make a simple cell phone call when he realized he was heading up a narrowing, perilous dirt track.
By all accounts that would have prevented the episode entirely - the driver being apprised that he was on the wrong road to the helicopter awaiting refueling to fight a forest fire. But it's often convenient to ignore the obvious, and in this case the lack of cell phone coverage along a populated, commercial highway corridor resulted in 33,000 litres of jet fuel entering Lemon Creek.
The defendants in the lawsuit are the Executive Flight Centre, which employed the driver, the driver himself, and the provincial government. That's all fine and dandy, but make no mistake: in the court of public opinion, Telus is on trial, too.
In 2011, Telus signed an agreement with the Province to connect more than 1,700 kilometres of unconnected highways with wireless service by the end of 2016. Highway 6, which crosses Lemon Creek between Crescent Valley and Slocan City, is included in that contract. The Connecting British Columbia Agreement (CBCA) is lengthy and bureaucratic, but it clearly outlines that Telus and the Province have failed to live up to their commitments.
This despite numerous entreaties from civic authorities and emergency services to get the cell service up and running, including:
A petition forwarded by Slocan City council asking Telus and the Ministry of Transportation to provide the village with cell phone service.
Public acknowledgement by the RCMP that their communications' activities during the search for a Slocan shooting suspect were hampered by the lack of cell coverage.
It's a fact that more than half of all 911 calls are currently made from cell phones - a vital tool in emergency response and public safety. Premier Christy Clark is all for free Wi-Fi at B.C. ferry terminals, including in the Kootenays, but silently condones foot-dragging when it comes to the CBCA and residents' security.
Unfortunately, Telus has a business case for not being in a hurry as well. When the idea of cell coverage in the lower Slocan Valley was broached several years ago, leftist protestors immediately threw their arms in the air, declaiming the prospect of "unsightly" towers and electromagnetic fallout. Folly, yes, but the vocal minority was enough to prompt Telus to put its plans on hold, and little has changed.
There's something else at play, too. Experience has taught Telus that when cell towers go up, conventional land-lines come down: why pay $50 a month for basic desktop coverage when a decent cell phone package can be had for half that? When Telus brought wireless coverage to New Denver and Silverton, you could have built a berm with the number of plug-in phones that were discarded.
Lo and behold, before long the same protestors that wept when that cell tower went up were signing up for cell plans; you can't walk a block in New Denver these days without hearing a chirping phone.
And Telus? Well, maybe it will take a de facto turn in a Nelson courtroom to finally get the company moving again on its West Kootenay commitments. Community focused businesses like Telus are quick to tout 'corporate social responsibility,' and what better way to walk the talk than saving people's lives?
The Province, for its part - equally culpable and co-signatory to the Connecting British Columbia Agreement - is a defendant in the Lemon Creek case and will formally take the stand. The Clark government's silence on Slocan public safety and security is about to end: Crown prosecutors and a judge will see to that.
The court will demand that cell phones be muted, but the volume on the issue is about to rise dramatically.