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Disclosed Hullcar aquifer documents reignite concerns among North Okanagan residents

Spallumcheen resident Al Price with the water filtration system he bought after nitrate levels spiked in the water supply.
August 12, 2016 - 6:30 PM

VERNON - After combing through a series of documents released as part of an extensive Freedom of Information request, Hullcar residents fighting for clean drinking water say some of the information they obtained is ‘quite frightening.’

Earlier this summer, B.C.’s privacy commissioner ordered the province to release the documents, which included soil tests, reports and nutrient management plans related to high nitrate levels in the Hullcar aquifer. Directors with the Save Hullcar Aquifer Team have been pouring over the documents for weeks and chair Al Price says the results were eye-opening.

“Some of the information from the calendar years 2014 to 2015 is astonishing, some of it is quite frightening, and most of it paints a fairly clear picture of the government’s priorities when it comes to protection of public health and the environment,” Price says.

Around 200 residents have been on a drinking water advisory since 2014 due to high nitrate levels in the aquifer. They’ve called for an immediate moratorium on the application of liquid manure on a farm above the aquifer, an activity they believe is the main cause of the high nitrates.

Hullcar resident Shelley Baumbrough is one of the people who analyzed the documents from the freedom of information request and says they provide strong evidence of where the high nitrates are coming from.

“What it does is it finally give you a more complete understanding, something to factually base an argument on, where before we were blind, we had no data — they didn’t tell us anything,” Baumbrough says.

What became clear in the documents, Baumbrough says, is an underlying issue with the lagoons designed to hold effluent from the dairy operation.

“The issue, by the looks of it, boils down to the fact that the lagoons are too small for the amount of effluent produced,” she says.

Despite a compliance order issued in 2014 directing the farm to stop pouring effluent on the field, the Ministry of Environment authorized at least four more applications of nitrogen, and after reading the disclosed documents, Baumbrough believes she knows why. 

“The answer is this: in order to attend solely to the need to use the field of concern strategically to manage the effluent disposal and avoid the disaster of an overflowing or collapsed lagoon. There are too many cows for not enough land,” Baumbrough says.

Meanwhile, the certified crop advisor hired to create a nutrient management plan for the farm states in the disclosed documents he did not feel qualified to give guidance on keeping the Steele Springs water below the nitrate levels specified in the compliance order.

“(The) only consideration in regard to animal waste management was effluent disposal to prevent a lagoon breach, not nutrient management to ensure excess nitrogen didn’t contaminate a drinking water source,” Baumbrough says.

The dairy farm recently obtained building permits to construct a 20,000-square-foot barn for shavings storage, as well as a 33,920-square-foot dairy barn, leaving Hullcar residents concerned about impacts on their water.

The province came out with an action plan to address the high nitrate issues in March of 2016, but Hullcar residents say it is not enough.

“We’re going to keep pushing along because this is a public health issue,” Baumbrough says.

When contacted for an interview, the Ministry of Environment did not immediately have anyone available to answer questions. We’ve asked ministry staff to get back to us when they have someone available.

You can read all the documents released by the government here. 

To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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