Betting The Farm

With 11,000 sheep, 113,000 hogs, 118,000 cows, 700,000 turkeys, and a whopping 15.4 million chickens, the Fraser Valley is home to one of the densest concentrations of farm animals in North America, and it's tops in Canada. This is no accident. The valley's rich floodplain soils have lured farmers for well over a century. And with Greater Vancouver's steady population growth, countless opportunities exist to market meat and dairy products to consumers right next door.

But when mountains and a mighty river hem in large numbers of livestock, problems are inevitable. Where do the masses of manure produced by those legions of animals go? The answer can be gleaned by taking a drive on the side roads outside the valley's rural communities. Before long you may spot a dense, yellow-brown fog obliterating the sky above a field. Slicing through the fog will be a thick liquid column of water and manure, sprayed under high pressure. The theory--reasonable when the weather is dry and not too much is applied--is that this soup will enhance crop growth by returning nutrients to the soil.

Spraying manure is one of the few economically viable disposal options for farmers. But it is risky and forbidden during wet winter months. Serious waterborne-disease outbreaks in North America in recent years--including Walkerton, Ontario--were linked to pathogens in animal waste. It could easily happen in the Fraser Valley. In places, aquifers are just a metre underground. No protective clay layer separates them from the surface, resulting in a creeping contamination.

For years, one of the few people stopping area farmers from polluting was a Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection employee named Bev Anderson. Throughout most of the 1990s and early 2000s, Anderson, a "compliance and enforcement technician", fearlessly defended the public interest. When farmers broke the law, she told them. In nine years, Anderson's work saw 109 Fraser Valley farmers issued cleanup orders. Many more doubtless would have been issued had Anderson's efforts not rankled her political bosses. Today, Anderson is no longer a public servant. In her absence, there has been almost a complete collapse in enforcement of antipollution laws in the valley. More troubling, in the Surrey offices where Anderson once worked, two other long-time public servants, both vigorous defenders of the environment, are also conspicuously absent. No one's stepping in to fill the void. As a Georgia Straight investigation shows, some public servants are paying a steep price for looking after our water, land, and air. Their disappearance, a respected university professor says, is a powerful signal of just how low a priority the environment is for the current government. Or is it something more: a deliberate attempt to silence those who dare to question development's costs?

BEV ANDERSON was about as dedicated a public servant as one could find. She wasn't afraid to confront farmers for failing to live up to regulations, even when it brought her into conflict with relatives of John van Dongen, MLA for Abbotsford-Clayburn and provincial Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries. She was constantly identifying offenders, whoever and wherever they were.

Dick Roberts, who recently retired and was briefly Anderson's most senior boss at the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection, says he had "the greatest admiration" for Anderson. "She worked assiduously. She really did. And she regarded it as her territory. She was actually very possessive about it. She'd drive in from--where did she live?--Chilliwack, checking things on the way in and [on] the drive home from work."

Ray Robb, the man responsible for signing the dozens of pollution-abatement and
-prevention orders that Anderson prepared, concurs. "Bev was certainly very diligent. She didn't limit herself to the hours she was paid to do her job."

But when the farmers who were investigated received the orders, it was "just like a red flag to a bull", Roberts says. And as quickly as bulls charge a matador's cape, Roberts says, Fraser Valley farmers were on the phone to their MLAs, including van Dongen.

Mohammed Alam, who took early retirement from the ministry two years ago and who worked as a public servant for 35 years, was a colleague of Anderson's. He says the complaints from local MLAs began under the NDP and grew under the Liberals. "There was some political interference with her job by the MLAs, by the local MLAs in the Abbotsford area," Alam tells the Straight. "The farmers were complaining. There was going to be some major financial problems for them.... They had to spend more money to store the manure or to get rid of the manure."

In a telephone interview from her new home in Yellowknife where, she quips, "I'm about as far away from dairy farmers as I can get," Anderson says the political pressure culminated in a meeting at the Ministry of Agriculture's offices in Abbotsford in November 2001. "Right at the beginning of the meeting, Dick Roberts, who was chairing it, got up and he looked at me and he said: 'Well, Bev, you might as well know why we're meeting.' He said: 'The minister of agriculture has asked our minister to fire you.' Just like that."

Whether or not he used those exact words, Roberts does not recall. But he does say that there was no doubt that there were "repercussions at the political level" as a result of Anderson's work. He added that the purpose of the November meeting "was to review the political concerns about the way the program was operating. We needed to break past the impasse between the farming industry in the valley and the regional office."

Anderson never was fired, but like thousands of public servants in the past three years, she received notice that her position was being eliminated as a result of the B.C. Liberal government's Service Plan Review. The end result has been an 88-percent decline in the issuance of pollution-prevention orders to valley farmers. That gap would be greater still, Anderson says, had the political heat not been turned up and her every action scrutinized in her last five months on the job. "I had to explain every single step that I was doing out in the valley, which was taking up a lot of my time. I wasn't able to do my job, and it was really, really, really stressful. Plus, I was getting threatened out in the field. It was dangerous trying to do [enforcement work with] the dairy farmers," she recalls. "There were threats of gun-shooting. I even had to phone the RCMP on one incident."

AMONG ANDERSON'S LAST investigations was one spearheaded by pollution-prevention
officer Wilbert Yang, now with the Greater Vancouver Regional District. The file is noteworthy for many reasons. One, it involved industrial waste trucked to valley farms for disposal--including waste from the chicken-processing industry. Two, a subsidiary of the waste company involved ran afoul of environmental laws in Ontario. Three, of the nine farmers investigated, two were related to van Dongen: one a brother, the other a brother-in-law. Four, a third of the farmers investigated spread the toxic waste without getting approvals. And five, after months of investigation only two farmers were fined. Both were ticketed $575, an amount that one former government employee familiar with the file calls "embarrassing", considering that the farmers reported that they were to be paid $100 for each of the numerous truckloads of waste they received.

(Questions on the investigation and Anderson's subsequent departure were submitted to the offices of both van Dongen and the former Minister of Water, Land and Air Protection Joyce Murray. Both declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

The investigation began in 1999 after a fire, estimated to have done $12 million in damages, destroyed much of a facility--owned by Langley-based Thermo Tech Technologies--on Mitchell Island in Richmond. The company's business plans called for it to gather waste from food-processing plants, supermarkets, restaurants, and various other unnamed "organic waste sources" and place it in large vats, where a bacteria would break down the waste. The bacteriological activity would generate heat that would kill any pathogens, at which point, the company claimed, the waste could be used to enhance farm soils. Before its plans turned to embers, Thermo Tech's Richmond Bio Conversion facility was pursuing the idea of turning waste into pellets that would then be fed to farm animals.

According to reports in the Hamilton Spectator, Thermo Tech started operating a similar facility in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1995. The plant closed in 2002. A year earlier, the company illegally dumped "fatty liquids" into a local creek, breaking not only the law but also the company's stated intention of "alleviating the burden of pollution on the world". It was convicted and fined $10,000 under Ontario's Environmental Protection Act and was subsequently investigated for discharging diesel fuel into a sewer line leading to the same creek.

Freedom-of-information requests show that prior to the Richmond Bio Conversion fire--and accelerating after the blaze when large amounts of stored waste were not incinerated and had to be disposed of--nine Fraser Valley farmers accepted material from the facility without provincial authorizations. In total, 149 truckloads were delivered. Most of the more than 2.35 million litres of material appears to have been in the form of a highly acidic, orange-brown sludge that was emptied into large pits already filled with manure.

The farmer receiving the most material was Jim Hessels, John van Dongen's brother-in-law. Another van Dongen relative, brother Jim van Dongen, accepted 13 truckloads of the material.

Internal government memos obtained by FOI requests show that Hessels accepted 55 truckloads of waste and that it was delivered both to his property at 4844 112th Street in Delta and to a leased farm across the street owned by Jack van Dongen, another brother of the agriculture minister. Written entries in the files dated September 23, 1999, show that on a visit to Hessels's farm, investigators noted that Richmond Bio Conversion's waste was "spread on land directly and it burned the grass". Investigators surmised that high oil and grease content in the waste "could be [the] reason for the burning grass".

Samples of the waste were collected and sent to a laboratory for analysis. The results were later reviewed by both the provincial Ministry of Agriculture and the environmental-impacts section of the then--Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks--predecessor to Water, Land and Air Protection. An FOI request revealed that those reviews concluded the waste could have "potential impacts to plants, livestock and aquatic organisms", and for that reason it should "not be placed on agricultural soils or near surface waterways".

The revie ws concluded that, among other things, the waste was unduly high in oils and greases that could smother water bodies. The oils included both waste cooking oils and, curiously, petroleum hydrocarbons--not the sort of thing that ought to be in processed food waste. It also contained mercury at concentrations almost seven times higher than background levels. Boron, which at elevated concentrations can be toxic to plants, was detected at levels 28 times higher than those recommended for irrigation purposes. And ammonia readings were up to 134 milligrams per litre, nearly seven times over the "acutely toxic" threshold of 20 milligrams per litre for marine organisms.

The presence of the hydrocarbons, in particular, meant that the sludge was far from benign and should have been classified as "special" waste. Special is the euphemistic word that provincial environment officials use to describe wastes that are considered toxic or hazardous. Wastes classified this way require anybody handling them to have permits from the provincial government before the materials are moved, treated, or disposed. Violations of such rules can result in prosecutions and stiff financial penalties.

Investigation notes show that Hessels was a primary focus, in part because he received the most waste, and also because he was told not to spread the material, spread it anyway, and then belatedly applied for the necessary permits--a request that was turned down. The seriousness of his offence is noted in a May 9, 2001, letter sent to Nick Bower, Crown counsel at Delta Provincial Court, by Fred Barnes, the provincial conservation officer on the investigation team.

"Normally a discharge of this volume would attract a substantially higher penalty," Barnes wrote--in other words, charges and the setting of a court date. However, Barnes continued, eight other farmers "were guilty of the same offence but they involved lesser amounts of waste". Because those offences resulted only in tickets being issued, "in the interests of fairness" the government should be "consistent" and only ticket Hessels. Barnes concluded by saying Hessels should receive no less a fine than $575.

Despite calls for fairness and consistency, however, there was none. As it turned out, only Hessels and a Langley farmer, Brian Anderson, were ticketed $575. A third farmer, Mark Sprangers, got off with a letter of warning. None of the other six farmers were reprimanded. And neither the trucking company that delivered the waste (A&A Anderson) nor Richmond Bio Conversion were charged, even though investigators concluded that they could have been "for aiding and abetting in an illegal activity". (In a curious sidelight to events at Brian Anderson's farm, investigators noted that he told them he was contacted directly by former Richmond Bio Conversion president, René Branconnier, about spreading the waste and that he did so but on Branconnier's property in Langley. Branconnier and Thermo Tech Technologies, the company he also headed as president and chair, would later be the subject of an unflattering report on wildly fluctuating stock values by Vancouver Sun business reporter David Baines.)

The low fines in the Richmond Bio Conversion investigation left one former ministry official familiar with the file decidedly unhappy. The official requested anonymity. Although it is unclear whether or not the farmers actually received $100 per truckload for the waste they accepted, their expectation was that they would get paid, the official said. Even for the two farmers who were penalized, the amount of money they anticipated in dumping fees--a combined $6,400--far outweighed what they paid in fines.

For his part, Hessels says he accepted the waste from Richmond Bio Conversion, believing it was reasonable to use as a soil enhancer. He says he never accepted any money for the waste, contested the ticket in court, and ultimately the charge was dropped.

In Ontario, provincial government officials have been decidedly more aggressive in recent years in dealing with farmers who casually spread industrial wastes on their lands. In January of last year, two Hamilton-area farmers--John Pittens and Johannes Pittens--were each found guilty of illegal waste-disposal activities by Ontario's Court of Justice. The first was fined $2,500 for spreading a "pinkish" liquid on his land. The farmer earlier told investigators he would have fed the sugar-laden material from the nearby Cadbury plant to his cows had it not been so runny. The other farmer was fined $1,500 for dumping "liquid organic waste" from a nearby Hostess Frito-Lay facility after he spread the waste from the snack-food manufacturer onto his corn field.

In both cases, the waste in Ontario was far less toxic than it was in B.C., yet the outcome in B.C. was little more than "a slap on the wrist", the official said. "For the effort we put into it, it's kind of embarrassing."

HAD PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENT employees not intervened in the Richmond Bio Conversion dumping fiasco, chances are the industrial waste would have been mixed with masses of manure and spread on farmlands outside of Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Delta, Langley, and Pitt Meadows.

Government files show that throughout the valley many farmers had routinely broken a host of agricultural and environmental laws involving storage and spreading of manure. The biggest worry was that contaminants in the manure would pollute aquifers as well as local streams, sloughs, and river channels during periods of heavy rainfall. And it fell almost entirely to Anderson to deal with the issue.

Anderson says her monitoring and enforcement work was made more difficult by the improper attempts some farmers made to cover their tracks. Spraying manure is easily detected--in daylight. But spraying sometimes occurred at night. And farmers clandestinely employed other disposal methods, including injecting manure a third of a metre into the subsoil.

"It was really difficult to see," Anderson recalls, "or they would have a manure spreader and right behind it a cultivator. And in some cases, they would do that at 10:30 or 11 o'clock at night." In order to catch some of the more deceitful farmers, Anderson and a conservation officer sometimes had to resort to hiding in the bush in the dead of night. With the evidence gathered, formal charges were sometimes laid and court dates set, at which point the farmers usually pleaded guilty and were fined. Some of the fines ran as high as $5,000 and $10,000.

One pollution-prevention order prepared by Anderson and issued to a dairy farmer in the winter of 2000 gives insight into the kind of thing that provincial environmental officials were trying to stop. The order issued to Egbert and Agnes Eisses, owners of Fazenda Holstein Ltd. in Sardis, required the couple to hire "a qualified professional experienced in the field of environmental assessment" to come up with a detailed plan showing how manure would be disposed of safely.

The plan required a study of groundwater contamination in and around the farm as well as an inventory of where water from the farm moved during periods of heavy rainfall. The Eisses were also required to show how much manure their cows produced and where it was being stored. There were also requirements to show where the farm's "milk parlour discharge" went, what feed additives and supplements were used, and a huge host of soil tests. The soil-test requirements included tests for phosphorous, ammonia, nitrogen, potassium, and metals.

The groundwater evaluation would have cost at least $10,000, says Hans Schreier, a soil scientist with UBC's Institute for Resources and Environment. Schreier, who knew Anderson and called her "one of the few people who was trying to enforce things" in the Fraser Valley, continues to study how farming practices result in the degradation of local water bodies.

"The Abbotsford aquifer, which is our biggest aquifer in the valley, has obviously been a sore point for the past 25 years," Schreier tells the Straight. "Not much has been done to improve it. It's not getting better; it's getting worse."

Nitrates in the manure are turning up in the aquifer, Schreier says. Global health indices call for nitrate levels to be no higher than 10 milligrams per litre of water. In the Abbotsford aquifer, readings are "at least 15 or 20", Schreier says. High nitrate levels in water can work their way into the food chain, giving rise to concerns about methemoglobinemia, or blue-baby syndrome, a phenomenon in which babies up to six months old show signs of blueness, or cyanosis, in their lips and tips of their digits. This is a sign that their blood lacks the ability to transport sufficient oxygen, and it may, although rarely nowadays, lead to death.

High nitrate and phosphate levels in waterways are also highly problematic, particularly in winter, because they promote algae growth, which can suffocate aquatic life by robbing the water of oxygen. If the nitrates originate in manure--and, clearly, in the valley they do--then water may also be contaminated with metals such as copper and zinc, which are used as supplements in some farm feeds. The metals may be good for chickens, pigs, and cows, but they are harmful to fish and other aquatic species. And then there's the whole range of pathogens found in manure.
E. coli, the bacteria that killed seven in Walkerton, is not uncommon. As is Cryptosporidium, a single-cell parasite responsible for waterborne-disease outbreaks in Chilliwack, Kelowna, and Cranbrook in recent years. In the course of just one day, a calf infected with the parasite can "shed" as many as one billion cysts, each housing a hardy parasite. If this is not enough cause for concern, the cysts can survive immersion in household bleach.

In the absence of enforcement, Schreier says, these pollutants will continue to pose a threat to human health and the environment. And the source of those pollutants in places like the Fraser Valley will likely continue to be farming operations.

"We still treat farms as family farms and we still think that farmers are conscientious and behave in a proper manner and don't cause much harm to the land," Schreier says. "Given the economics--which aren't very favourable--people cut corners. And now, with the disappearance of people like Anderson, we have virtually no enforcement. What we do now is tell the farmers to regulate themselves. And that's a problem. It's this hen-and-fox thing. If you put the fox in the hen house, well, you're going to have problems."

With the change in government almost four years ago, a profound shift in environmental regulation began. The new approach, Schreier says, is deregulation. We tell the farming industry and other enterprises such as forestry what the broad objectives are and then we leave it up to them to determine how best to meet them through "best management practices". It's a "very contentious" approach, Schreier says. And it only works if you have a vigilant, well-staffed, and well-funded public watchdog.

With Anderson gone, Schreier says the entire province of British Columbia--not just the Fraser Valley--is down to one public servant working on manure-management issues. No matter how vigilant that government employee is, he can't do the job. And his political masters know it.

"Just go and talk to the people in Water, Land and Air Protection....
They're probably down 40 percent over what they were five years ago," Schreier says. "The ministry has been decimated to the point where I don't think it can properly function. I don't think that they have the capacity to do all the things that they are supposed to do. Environment is the lowest priority for this government."

WERE ANDERSON'S DEMISE the only instance of what appears to be politically motivated removal of public servants from environmental-watchdog positions, it would be an anomaly. But her eyes are not the only ones absent, her voice not the only one silenced.

One of Anderson's former office mates, Carla Lenihan, now sits at home in Abbotsford, where she has been on long-term medical disability for more than a year following a nasty departure from the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection. Lenihan had worked as a wildlife biologist for the province for about 10 years when she took the unusual but, she says, necessary step of filling out an affidavit that the Sierra Legal Defence Fund filed in the Supreme Court of British Columbia as part of an action to halt logging. The affidavit outlined her concerns over the threats posed to endangered northern spotted owls by the Fraser Valley's largest independent logging company, Cattermole Timber.

Lenihan says she finished an initial draft of the affidavit with the approval of her immediate boss. But when she was done, she says, others in her ministry and the Ministry of the Attorney General got wind of it and told her not to sign it. Lenihan did anyway, believing that she had a public duty to do so and that she was doing nothing more than confirming what was already in her written notes to her ministry, the Ministry of Forests, and the logging companies.

In 2001, as the B.C. government readied to announce the layoff of thousands of public servants, Lenihan says she was told she was being transferred to the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management, where she would no longer be working on feathered creatures of the endangered kind. "They told me they didn't want me working on owls at all," Lenihan says. "And they told me to remove every digital file from my computer and all the papers from my files involving spotted owls." Making matters worse, she was told that she would have to move to Nanaimo if she wanted to keep her job.

With Lenihan sidelined and much of her owl work expunged from government records, it falls to remaining staff to do her job. But no one is, Lenihan says, at least not with the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection.

"I'm sure there are companies out there doing stuff that would make me and others pretty upset," Lenihan says from her home. "But no one's out there watching exactly what they're doing. No one's monitoring forest harvesting in owl habitat anymore."

Joining Lenihan and Anderson on a list of the disappeared is another long-time member of the ministry's Surrey environmental corps, Marvin Rosenau. Rosenau hasn't exactly disappeared but is in a sort of limbo in which he is no longer doing work as a frontline fisheries biologist.

After repeatedly speaking out about large-scale valley subdivision developments, the removal of gravel from the Fraser River, and the impacts of these on fish habitat, Rosenau was removed from his position as a fisheries biologist with Water, Land and Air Protection in Surrey. For the time being, he works out of the University of British Columbia as a researcher paid for by the ministry. Where, exactly, Rosenau will be in the future is unclear. What is clear, however, is that in the next five years, under a deal announced by the provincial and federal governments after Rosenau's transfer, up to 2.26 million cubic metres of gravel could be removed from the Lower Fraser River. This could prove to be one of the most serious losses to fisheries habitat in the lower Fraser River in recent decades. And, at least for now, it will commence with one of the most consistent and articulate critics of gravel removal sidelined.

Anderson, Lenihan, and Rosenau all pursued different disciplines. They all worked for the same ministry out of the same office. And they all confronted established interests--Anderson and the Fraser Valley farmers, Lenihan and the valley's timber barons, and Rosenau and the valley's developers and gravel industry.

They all performed admirably well. Too well, it seems. In environmental public service these days, doing well is precisely the wrong thing to do.