Illegal waste discharge on Fraser Valley farm stokes environmental worries among residents

Workers apply tarps to piles of waste at a property in Columbia Valley near Cultus Lake, B.C. (Justine Boulin/CBC - image credit)
Workers apply tarps to piles of waste at a property in Columbia Valley near Cultus Lake, B.C. (Justine Boulin/CBC - image credit)

D'Arcy Henderson picks up pieces of plastic and trash strewn across her neighbour's yard.

The Columbia Valley resident points to steaming piles of waste sitting on the other side of a blue fence as the source.

"If you look at the plastic on the ground and the garbage blowing, that's 500 years that won't disappear," she told CBC News.

Environmental concerns are mounting in the small community near Cultus Lake, B.C., about 101 kilometres southeast of Vancouver, after truckload after truckload of business waste was dropped at a farm without provincial approval, violating B.C.'s Environmental Management Act.

The waste, which from a distance might look like compost, contains large amounts of plastics, wood, and other foreign materials, deeming it unsuitable for soil enhancement. It was discharged by the Abbotsford-based organic waste conversion company Fraser Valley Renewables (FVR).

Justine Boulin/CBC
Justine Boulin/CBC

Residents have raised concerns the waste could leach into an aquifer below the soil and contaminate the local water supply.

"That provides all the drinking water for the homes in this community, in Lindell Beach, and empties into Cultus Lake," said Henderson.

FVR and the ministry have claimed the risk of water contamination is minimal.

Waste delivered to farm

The waste was dropped on 810 Iverson Road, a property owned by farmer Bruce Vander Wyck. CBC News has reached out to Vander Wyck.

Simon Thorogood, business development manager for FVR, says his company was working with Vander Wyck to increase the nutrient values of his farm land.

Justine Boulin/CBC
Justine Boulin/CBC

Residents say they were first notified of the project in March. In the months that followed, residents say as many as 12 semi-trucks per day were seen delivering waste. Complaints were filed to the Ministry of Environment and the Agricultural Land Commission in July.

"Unfortunately, the engagement we had with the local community was not adequate enough," Thorogood told CBC News during a visit to the site.

"Obviously this was a big project in their backyard and they should have known about it before it started."

Unauthorized discharge

Thorogood wouldn't specify just how much of the waste material was brought to the property, but says the plan was to bring compost to the site, further process it, and then apply it to the land.

By the time ministry inspectors visited the site on Nov. 17, some of the material had already been applied.

Justine Boulin/CBC
Justine Boulin/CBC

A ministry report says the piles of unscreened waste "were observed to have a visible amount of foreign matter," while samples of the screened, land-applied material also did not meet requirements of less than one per cent foreign matter. Foreign matter refers to plastic, woods and other types of garbage found in untreated compost.

Officers concluded that FVR's decision to store, screen and apply the untreated material at the farm amounted to discharging business waste without government approval, an offence that can carry a $1-million fine and even six months imprisonment.

Justine Boulin/CBC
Justine Boulin/CBC

When asked why FVR would deliver unpermitted waste, Thorogood said there was "confusion of the multiple regulations and exemptions involved with this project." He also admitted the material should have been tested before it was applied to the land.

The ministry ordered FVR to "implement necessary changes" to the waste material to comply with provincial rules, as well as cover the waste piles with tarps to prevent runoff and solids from escaping.

Thorogood says it's submitted plans to the ministry on how it plans to reprocess the waste on site and is currently waiting to hear back. The waste that was applied to the land is now stored in a large pile.

Environmental concerns mounting

As of Jan. 11, many of the piles remained uncovered, much to the frustrations of residents who fear rain has lead to runoff seeping into the soil toward the watershed.

"We've got thousands of truck loads ... sitting right on top of our aquifer, and that's where we get our drinking water in Cultus Lake," said Taryn Dixon, an elected official with the Fraser Valley Regional District.

Justine Boulin/CBC
Justine Boulin/CBC

Dixon is calling for third-party soil testing to ensure hazardous material won't leaching into the water. FVR says its own samples were sent to a private lab and show the material doesn't poses little risk.

Dixon says there are also concerns over the airshed, noting the fire department has been called to the site four times over the material setting fire.

"Just over Christmas, the plastic was burning, and now we add what fumes are people breathing in the area?" she said.

In a statement, the ministry said it's working with FVR to ensure laws and regulations are followed.

Residents like Jason Vasilash are growing increasingly frustrated by the government's response, which they say has been slow and with minimal consequence to the offenders.

"This has turned into a massive industrial waste dump, completely unpermitted from the start," said Vasilash.

"I'd get fined if I littered on the street."