SPALLUMCHEEN - The Interior Health Authority is reviewing its options after receiving a request to put the brakes on a North Okanagan farm’s practice of spraying manure above a drinking water aquifer, but a spokesperson insists it might not be the answer, and might not even be possible.
The formal request submitted by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre on behalf of concerned residents asked the health authority to order an immediate moratorium on the spread of liquid manure over a 210-acre field owned by HS Jansen and Sons Farm Ltd., which runs a roughly 1,000-head dairy farm in Spallumcheen. The request follows nearly two years of a continuous water quality advisory alerting residents to the potential health risks of high nitrate levels.
The group argues the health authority has the power to order a stop to the farm practice under the Drinking Water Act, but Ron Birtles, a team leader for small water infrastructure programs with Interior Health says that may not be the case.
“There is a stipulation under (the Act) which would potentially prevent us from writing an order because this particular practice is authorized by another level of government,” Birtles says.
Citizens have already waded through numerous branches of local and provincial government, including the Township of Spallumcheen, City of Armstrong, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources.
When nitrate levels in the Steele Springs water system reached 8.56 ppm in February 2014, the Ministry of Environment issued a compliance order to the farm, ordering it to stop spraying effluent on the field. Subsequent to the order, the Ministry authorized four more applications of nitrogen to the field in question.
Interior Health denies that HS Jansen and Sons Farm Ltd. is the primary source of the nitrates. Birtles says there are many possible sources of nitrates in the area.
“What we have to determine is if indeed the application of manure is completely ceased on that field, will it have an affect on the aquifer?” Birtles says, noting restrictions have been placed on the farm by the Ministry of Environment. “Either the intervention hasn’t worked, or it’s not the farmer.”
Interior Health recently gave source approval for a new well in a deeper aquifer in the area. Recent testing revealed nitrate levels of 1.5 ppm. That’s the interim solution, Birtles says.
“The permanent solution most likely is connecting Steele Springs to the City of Armstrong’s system, but it’s very costly to do that,” Birtles says.
To local residents like Al Price and his wife Cathy, the solution is much more simple: have the farm stop spraying manure on the field.
“How can you just write off a water source like that?” Cathy says.
The Hullcar aquifer is a large underground water source spanning an area in and around Hullcar Road, Schubert Road and Round Prairie Road in the Township of Spallumcheen.
The Prices say they aren’t trying to get the farm shut down, but they believe there are better farm practices available. One idea is for the dairy farm to start using an anaerobic digester to break down the manure and turn it into a safe, useable product. Several farms in B.C. have already begun using the technology.
“We don’t see the farmer as the enemy. He is simply doing what the government allows him to do,” Al says.
During the two-year water quality advisory, local residents have had to pay for expensive water treatment systems, bottled water, and the possible cumulative health affects of long-term nitrate exposure. Home assessments plummeted by approximately $30,000 this year due to the health advisory, Cathy says. Meanwhile, another farmer fears she may lose her organic certification due to the contaminants in the water.
Days after the environmental law group submitted the formal request to Interior Health, it is now firing back at another level of government for accountability. In a letter sent Wednesday to Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, the law centre states the Ministry of Environment failed to release important documents about the Hullcar water source contamination. It called on Denham to investigate what it says was a breach of the Freedom of Information Act and recommends reforming the act to require routine public posting of environmental compliance orders and authorizations.
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