Government pours money into shutting down toxic-waste renegade

For years, Ed Ilnicki ran a company that boasted of its expertise in "handling" toxic wastes. And handle them it did, in flagrant violation of environmental laws.

Two summers ago, the scope of that illegality hit home in spectacular fashion. Environment Minister Barry Penner declared a state of emergency at a Fraser Valley warehouse that Ilnicki's company–Canada Petroleum Corp.–had vacated after failing to meet lease payments. The declaration came just days after the Georgia Straight filed questions with Penner's office seeking details on a contract that the province had yet to disclose. That contract called for Newalta Corp.–a major player in the hazardous-waste business–to conduct a taxpayer-funded cleanup of the site.

Inside the warehouse on Abbotsford's Industrial Avenue, Newalta workers found 1,690 barrels of toxic waste, many badly corroded.

Since that cleanup in the summer of 2005, B.C. taxpayers have yet to learn the costs incurred by the province. Requests by the NDP Opposition for the figure were rebuffed by the Liberals on grounds that the matter was before the attorney general's office, where lawyers were weighing whether or not to proceed with criminal charges against Ilnicki.

Following a tip, however, the Straight has discovered that not only has the province asked the Supreme Court of B.C. to order Ilnicki to pay the cleanup bill, it absorbed untold other costs as it pursued Ilnicki from one business location to another, where he was storing toxic wastes in violation of provincial laws.

In its B.C. Supreme Court writ filed on June 26 this year, the province seeks to recover $869,550 in cleanup costs for Industrial Avenue. With outstanding interest, about $1 million is now owed. But Ilnicki's various misadventures have clearly cost the province a lot more.

Government lawyers have logged numerous hours on Ilnicki-related matters. Each billable hour is valued at $140. But because the matter is before the courts, Linda Mueller, the attorney general's communications manager, said the government cannot disclose the hours for fear of "prejudicing" the case.

The number must be high, however. Prior to Penner's emergency declaration, the province tried hard to get Tristar Brick and Block–the company that leased the warehouse to Ilnicki–to cover the cleanup cost. Tristar owner Sev Samulski told the Straight his successful legal defence cost him $468,000.

Documents filed with B.C.'s Environmental Appeal Board (EAB) show that government lawyers and Ministry of Environment staff expended untold other public funds after the Industrial Avenue cleanup as they followed Ilnicki to not one but at least three different locations in Abbotsford and Langley, where he was once again storing toxic wastes without provincial approvals.

NDP environment critic Shane Simpson said in light of the Industrial Avenue "debacle", the province must explain why it is seemingly incapable of preventing Ilnicki from making further forays into the often murky world of hazardous-waste management.

"Why would you allow an operator to continue to operate when that is his history? Particularly when he hasn't demonstrated to the satisfaction of the ministry that he has changed his practices?" Simpson asked.

Environment Ministry spokesperson Kate Thompson said that the court proceedings prevent Penner from discussing the matter.

Documents housed at the EAB, which met in 2006 and again this year to hear two different appeals that Ilnicki filed, reveal just how difficult it has been for the province to halt his illegal activities. Under provincial regulations, businesses hit with cleanup orders can ask the EAB to overturn the orders. Ilnicki did so twice, arguing that he was the victim of a government vendetta.

"To have 5 senior Ministry of Environment and 5 senior City of Abbotsford staff go through my personal holdings, on hands and knees looking for something, seriously questions your focus," Ilnicki wrote to the Environment Ministry in December 2005, following an inspection at 31234 Wheel Avenue in Abbotsford, which became the subject of Ilnicki's first EAB appeal.

The letter, along with many other documents, is contained in EAB files. Elsewhere, those files show that Environment Ministry investigators found large amounts of waste oil, waste printing inks, and flammable xylene, among other hazardous materials, at Wheel Avenue. The toxic compounds were allegedly for use by Valley Demolition Design and Repair, a business that Ilnicki operated at 5763 Riverside Street in Abbotsford. An Abbotsford business licence lists the company's principal activities as "demolish, repair, design & rebuild buildings, machinery and equipment".

The EAB could not square how these and other toxins, such as 700 litres of fountain solution–a designated "dangerous good" used in the printing industry to dampen or wipe down printing plates–were of use in a demolition and building-repair business.

EAB files do not indicate it, but the Wheel Avenue facility operated at least temporarily under the name OPF Resource Recovery Inc. A business licence for OPF, obtained by the Straight from the City of Abbotsford, describes the company as being in the "recycling" business and concerned with the "recovery" of oil, plastic, and filters. At least part of its work was under the auspices of the British Columbia Used Oil Management Association. BCUOMA is a nonprofit organization that coordinates the B.C.–wide recovery and recycling of used oil, used oil filters, and used oil containers, which are typically plastic.

Ron Driedger, BCUOMA's executive director, told the Straight that OPF was briefly approved to collect used oil containers, but not used oil or filters. Yet on at least one occasion, he said, OPF was designated as a pickup point for 45 barrels full of used oil filters, which were apparently routed through OPF by another company that also didn't hold permits to move waste oil or filters. Driedger informed the Environment Ministry of the alleged infractions in December 2005.

The EAB ultimately denied Ilnicki's appeal in November 2006. He was required to hire a qualified professional to itemize and test all toxic wastes at Wheel Avenue, report on any toxic wastes that had entered the sewer system from the property, and submit a list of registered companies that would pick up and haul away the toxic wastes.

Instead, Ilnicki moved everything without permits to 1717 Foy Street in Abbotsford. Environment Ministry officials found him, though, and he soon moved the material again, this time to 2790 Gloucester Way in Langley.

Confronted with orders similar to those at Wheel Avenue, Ilnicki again asked the EAB to intervene. Once more, the EAB rejected his appeal, issuing its decision in July of this year. The Environment Ministry's Jennifer McGuire impressed the board with her concerns about large amounts of flammable acetone found at Foy Street. Acetone can induce tremors and coma in people who suffer overexposure. The waste acetone had been used to dissolve the chemical styrene, a possible human carcinogen used extensively in plastic manufacturing. These and other toxic chemicals on-site were a threat to leak and pollute the shallow Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer underlying the property, McGuire said.

Ilnicki did not return phone calls from the Straight. He has variously described himself as an electrician, heavy-duty mechanic, and operator of a home-restoration business that removes mould from houses that have been used as marijuana grow-ops.

Ilnicki has yet to respond to the province's B.C. Supreme Court writ. An earlier court action involving the company he headed ended in June 2005, when Canada Petroleum Corp. was convicted on two counts of violating B.C.'s Waste Management Act. CPC was ordered to pay $10,000 in fines, $8,000 of which was to go to the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund. The HCTF works to restore and enhance fish and wildlife habitat across B.C. CPC was given a year to make the payment. As of a few weeks ago, the HCTF was still awaiting a cheque. -