Massive joint effort needed to clean up 'historically messed up' Kelowna sawmill site | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source
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Kelowna News

Massive joint effort needed to clean up 'historically messed up' Kelowna sawmill site

Work being done on farmland that was once home to the Russo Sawmill.

There is no question the former Russo Sawmill site in Kelowna is one of the city’s longest standing unsightly and problem properties.

“It’s probably one of the most historically messed up properties in Kelowna,” Raj Kandola, the owner of one of four properties that constitute the site, told iNFOnews.ca.

But the opinions on what she and others have been doing on the properties differ widely and there are various legal actions being taken by governments and individuals.

“It's a really tough problem to resolve and I think it does need to be resolved and you can see, by the repeated attempts to work with the property owners and the Agricultural Land Commission over the years, the city has been trying,” Ryan Smith, the city’s community planning department manager, told iNFOnews.ca.

“Bylaw (enforcement) alone can’t get this cleaned up. If it could have, I think it would be cleaned up by now. It’s going to take more than that. We have a team that deals with problem sites in Kelowna and this one is way beyond that.”

A joint effort is required between the city, Agricultural Land Commission and Ministry of Environment, he said.

This is the front entrance to 1040 Old Vernon Road.
This is the front entrance to 1040 Old Vernon Road.

Louis Russo started the sawmill in the 1940s to supply railway ties. According to City of Kelowna documents the family sold the four properties about 20 years ago.

There are now four owners of the four different properties, each about 10 acres in size. The two outside lands at 944 and 1124 Old Vernon Rd. used to have some sawmill materials on them. They are now restored to agricultural uses, Smith said.

The parcel where the sawmill once stood at 1040 Old Vernon Rd. was bought, according to city documents, by Edmonton-based McColman and Sons Demolition in 2007.

This Google Earth view shows the four properties. The one at the bottom and at the top are in agricultural use. 1040 and 982 Old Vernon Rd. are the ones in the middle showing the gray piles stacked on them.
This Google Earth view shows the four properties. The one at the bottom and at the top are in agricultural use. 1040 and 982 Old Vernon Rd. are the ones in the middle showing the gray piles stacked on them.
Image Credit: Google Earth

That property is the subject of a stop work order issued by the Agricultural Land Commission on Feb. 15, citing hundreds of truckloads of unauthorized material having been dumped on the site along with illegally stored equipment.

READ MORE: UPDATED: Land Commission orders end to dumping on former sawmill site in Kelowna

Kandola bought the property at 982 Old Vernon Rd. in 2005. She told iNFOnews.ca that she has been trying for years to do the right thing and clean up the property.

This is the view of 1040 Old Vernon Rd. from the east side.
This is the view of 1040 Old Vernon Rd. from the east side.

When Alexandra and John Wright bought the 20-acre farm north of the Russo site in 2014, things didn’t look too bad.

“Nothing much was happening,” Alexandra told iNFOnews.ca. “There was a little bit of wood debris that had been left over but there were no commercial activities going on.”

That changed dramatically last year when the owner started hauling in what the land commission described as asphalt and crushed concrete waste along with various pieces of equipment. Alexandra said there are also boats and demolition material on the property like steel pipe and bins full of metal.

On the 982 Old Vernon Rd. property, Alexandra said a company was doing a good job grinding up the old lumber waste and composting it some years ago but, later, TNT Trucking moved in and seems to be hauling more material onto the site.

In November, the Ministry of Environment issued a warning letter against TNT for illegally operating without “waste discharge authorization” and ordered it to rectify the situation or face a fine of up to $1 million and/or jail of six months.

This shows some of the old wood from the sawmill.
This shows some of the old wood from the sawmill.

Over the years Kandola has filed a few applications to allow for non-farm uses on her property on a temporary basis. The most recent was in March 2023. A city report said the "applicants/lessee are now applying to conduct the non-farm uses on the subject property indefinitely.”

“A lot has happened since then (March) and that is not the case,” Kandola told iNFOnews.ca. “There will be time where there will be a success story for our 10 acres. I think it’s best to hold tight until we have certain approvals in place. I’ve done nothing wrong and done everything right for the last 15 to 18 years.”

Alexandra disagrees with that but it must be pointed out in 2022 the Wrights filed a lawsuit against Kandola and TNT, who responded in kind.

The City of Kelowna documents show dozens of reports, applications, tickets and other problems, mostly with the 1040 Old Vernon Rd. property.

“There have probably been three separate intensive efforts, during my 20 years here, to try to support different uses there that would see the cleanup happen so this could ultimately come back to an agricultural standard,” Smith said.

At the core of the problem are piles of old lumber.

For a couple of years, some of it was hauled to a co-generation plant in Armstrong but that was stopped because the wood had lost its burning potential, a city report said. Similarly, its nitrogen levels were too low to make it compostable on its own. Other materials need to be mixed in for that to work.

The sawmill was there long before the Agricultural Land Reserve was created in 1972 but the land commission insists the properties have agricultural potential, even if it means hauling in top soil.

A city estimate in 2017 put the cost of grinding wood waste and hauling in topsoil to remediate the 1040 Old Vernon Rd. property at more than $1 million.

“The property owners, over time I think, they’ve brought in the thinking that: ‘Oh, we can kind of use them quasi-industrially,” which they’ve never been properly permitted, which is part of the problem," Smith said.

This shows 944 Old Vernon Rd. back as farmland, next to neighbouring piles of fill.
This shows 944 Old Vernon Rd. back as farmland, next to neighbouring piles of fill.

The Catch-22 is activities that could generate revenue that would subsidize the cleanup and restoration are not technically legal under city and/or provincial rules.

Smith said the land commission needs to take a lead role, but it and the city both need to be flexible on what short-term land uses they allow.

“I think they need to strip off anything that’s not permitted and then, maybe, allow some very narrow uses that may get them to a performance plan that gets them to clean up the property,” Smith said.

There also needs to be enforcement by both sides and the Ministry of Environment has to play a role to monitor for toxins and possible leaching from the properties.

Alexandra has a 2008 report to the city from Bodycote Testing Group that shows a wide range of toxin and metal concentrations that are over guideline levels in and around those properties and she fears there have been chemicals leaching into her well that provides drinking and irrigation water.

READ MORE: Here’s what’s been leaching from a Kelowna fruit packing plant for years

“There also needs to be some ability for those property owners to earn some income to work their way out of the problem, in our opinion,” Smith said.

“Usually we say enforcement is the last sort of option in these cases. We like to get them on a plan where they can gradually work their way out of these problems. If we just do enforcement and requirements for cleanup without anything else, those property owners could just walk away and the municipality ends up getting stuck with the cleanup bill and the problem.”


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