Butane leak leaves Saint John firefighters 'spread alarmingly thin'

Saint John firefighters have been 'spread alarmingly thin' at times over the the past few days dealing with a butane leak on the city's east side, according to the fire union.

Crews working 'around the clock' are 'greatly concerned' about impact of budget cuts, says union

Saint John firefighters continue to monitor butane levels in the Bayside Drive area following the Irving Oil leak discovered on Monday. (CBC)

Saint John firefighters have been "spread alarmingly thin" at times over the the past few days dealing with a butane leak on the city's east side, according to the fire union.

"This incident has been very labour intensive," the International Association of Firefighters Local 771 Saint John Firefighters Association posted on its Facebook page on Thursday.

Saint John firefighters have been on the scene "around the clock … evacuating people and testing for explosive levels of butane," since this leak was discovered at Irving Oil's Saint John East Terminal on Bayside Drive on Monday morning, it said.

Air monitoring and cleanup efforts continue, as approximately 65 area residents prepare to spend a fourth night barred from their homes.

Bayside Drive also remains closed to traffic between the Courtenay Bay Causeway and Red Head Road until further notice.

Butane is a colourless, highly flammable gas that can cause nausea, asphyxia and arrhythmia if inhaled.

Officials have still not said how much butane leaked or what caused the four-inch-diameter line that runs to the Irving Oil refinery to break.

Union president Peter Alexander and executive members have received "many inquiries " about the hazardous materials incident, according to the Facebook post.

Somebody's going to have to pay and I don't think it should be the city.- Gerry Lowe, city councillor

The post urges citizens with questions or concerns to contact the fire headquarters or the mayor and council.

"Saint John firefighters are greatly concerned about the impact proposed reductions will have on the public service they are committed to providing," it says.

The 2018 fire budget was slashed by $1.25 million. The police department's budget was also reduced by $1.25 million.

Saint John Mayor Don Darling could not immediately be reached for comment.

Could cost millions

Coun. Gerry Lowe thinks Irving Oil should reimburse the city for all costs associated with the butane leak response. (CBC)

Coun. Gerry Lowe, whose ward includes the area in question, said he wants Irving Oil to pick up the bill for services provided by firefighters, police and other city departments.

He estimated costs could reach into the millions and pointed to the amount of overtime involved as just one example.

"Somebody's going to have to pay and I don't think it should be the city," he said.

"We just want a fair shake, I mean it's an Irving [Oil] problem," Lowe said.

"It's a big thing, it's not a little thing and I hope when it's all done that we're reimbursed for all our time."

Lowe said he believes the city has been tracking all expenses incurred since responding to the scene around 11 a.m. Monday. Once the situation is resolved, "this thing is going to get straightened out."

Evacuees asked to provide keys to their homes

Heather Follett says Irving Oil has paid for everything her family has needed since they were forced from their River Avenue home on Monday. (CBC)

Evacuee Heather Follett says Irving Oil has covered all of her family's expenses.

"They've been wonderful for providing everything that we need," she said, referring to herself, her husband, their two daughters, their dog and bearded dragon lizard.

In addition to paying for their four-night hotel stay, the company purchased school clothing for the girls and bathing suits so they could swim in the hotel pool.

Irving also bought a kennel for the dog, said Follett, and an employee is even walking the dog.

Want to go home

Still, hotel life is wearing thin and the family is anxious to return to their River Avenue home, said Follett.

"I'm getting excited because we're getting closer," she said before handing her house key over to Saint John EMO officials so they could conduct air testing overnight.

Follett is hopeful her family will be able to go home on Friday. Officials have indicated residents of First Street East and Second Street East and at 66-72 Spruce St. will likely get the all-clear before River Avenue residents, she said.

Evacuees were told during an update from officials Thursday night that some butane was detected in some sewer lines on River Avenue, which needs to be dealt with first, said Follett.

Some evacuees expressed frustration during the private meeting, she said, but mostly they had lots of questions.

"Everybody's still in pretty good sprits," she said. "As a community, we've definitely grown closer."

With files from Connell Smith