Deadly brew

Millions of litres of toxic waste in the Fraser Valley are unaccounted for

In 1987, studies conducted by public health officials in California's San Bernardino County revealed that underground water reserves there were contaminated with chromium 6, a metallic element commonly used in chrome plating as well as for dyes, leather tanning, and wood preserving. The discovery was a seminal event in a story that has become linked in the minds of many North Americans with one woman's name: Erin Brockovich. As detailed in the popular film of the same name, the presence of chromium 6 was later blamed for a cluster of cancer cases and other mysterious illnesses in and around the community of Hinkley, California.

Far to the north of Hinkley, on the Fraser River's floodplain in Abbotsford, a company called Canada Petroleum Corporation received numerous shipments of chromium-contaminated materials in 1999 and 2000. In all, two dozen trucks would arrive at CPC's Industrial Avenue site in those two years, delivering to the alleged treatment facility almost 95,000 litres and an additional 30,000 kilograms of waste laced with the dangerous metal, which can readily leach into soils and from there into underground water reserves.

As the company's name suggests, CPC's business was supposed to be all about dealing with petroleum, more specifically waste oil. Waste oil and petroleum can be contaminated with a host of nasty substances, including arsenic, chromium, lead, and mercury, which is why the B.C. government considers it "special" waste, a euphemism for hazardous or toxic.

As a company dealing with such material, CPC needed a waste permit from the province in order to operate its facility. Such permits require waste handlers to post bonds in the event there are problems. And there would be problems aplenty at CPC's leased facility in an industrial park in Abbotsford, not the least being that it never held a permit to store or treat waste-oil products, let alone more troubling wastes such as the chromium-contaminated materials that entered its facility by the truckload.

But CPC's failure to obtain such a permit-a fact that came to light thanks to dogged work by Abbotsford News reporter Trudy Beyak-was only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It now turns out that millions of litres and several thousand kilograms of toxic wastes handled by CPC are unaccounted for, at least as far as provincial records are concerned. As a Georgia Straight investigation reveals, there are gaping holes in data the provincial government maintained on the company. In short, huge amounts of toxic waste that arrived by the truckload at CPC's leased building never made it out of there. Or if it did, our public overseer doesn't know where the wastes were sent, how they were treated, or how they were ultimately disposed of.

Equally troubling, records obtained by the Straight show that CPC, which is facing 11 charges for failing to adhere to B.C.'s Waste Management Act and regulations, was associated with another company with a sorry environmental track record. Yet CPC president Ed Ilnicki's relationship with that company, which operated on Vancouver's waterfront and was well known to environmental officials in the provincial and federal governments, does not appear to have set off alarm bells. And the end result is that public health and the environment may have been placed at serious and unnecessary risk.

Today, the leased Abbotsford ware?house that CPC was evicted from contains about 1,500 barrels of toxic waste. The company, which has filed for bankruptcy, failed to mark many of the barrels. Now their contents will have to be identified through a costly program of sampling and analysis. That process would likely require sending in workers outfitted with hazard suits and facemasks to take specimens from each barrel and chemically analyze their contents prior to determining how they should be disposed.

Wally Braul, a long-time environmental lawyer who has advised both provincial and federal governments on hazardous-waste issues, represents Sev Samulski, whose company, Tristar Brick & Block Ltd., owns the building that CPC leased before being forced to vacate it last September. Braul says that initial estimates to clean up the backlog of waste at the site range from a low of $250,000 to a high of $1 million. But as big a problem as the cleanup at the facility is, it fails to get at an issue of more fundamental importance, Braul says. And that is how the provincial government, on the public's behalf, ensures that waste companies play by the rules.

It may seem obvious to say that toxic or hazardous wastes are unwanted by just about everyone. They are a drag on profits, and the temptation to cut corners when getting rid of them can be great.

In light of this, Braul says, it may surprise many to learn that the whole system of how companies report the wastes they transport, treat, and get rid of rests on a shaky foundation of trust. Companies are trusted to do the honourable thing and accurately report what they handle, with each waste pickup entered onto a form known as a manifest that is then filed with the provincial government. Based on his almost two decades of work in environmental law, Braul says such a system only works if there are frequent and thorough checks.

"If you're relying on an honours system, you'd think there would be audits. Especially if you know there is a problem," Braul says. "In this case, one would have thought an audit would have been almost automatic-a thorough audit of materials destined for the site, an audit of the actual operations at the site, and the shipments from the site to other destinations."

Although officials with the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection may have failed to do such an audit, the Straight did one of its own based on the manifest data maintained by the provincial government. What that analysis reveals is that a shocking amount of waste that CPC reported as having handled appears to have disappeared into a big black hole: if it was properly treated and disposed of, the provincial government has no proper record of it.

According to data analyzed by the Straight and supplied to Samulski by the provincial government, CPC reported handling 16.5 million litres and an additional 1.1 million kilograms of toxic wastes between 1998 and 2004. Most, but not all, of that material is reported as moving by truck to the company's leased Industrial Avenue facility in Abbotsford. By using the same data, it's also possible to figure out what is officially listed as going elsewhere. That data shows that CPC reported shipping approximately 5.6 million litres and an additional 707,000 kilograms of toxic waste to other companies for treatment or disposal. That's a significant amount of material, but nowhere near the total amount of waste that the provincial government's data reports the company as having handled.

Even taking into account the approximately 300,000 litres of hazardous waste believed to be in those 1,500 barrels at the Abbotsford facility-a warehouse whose air is so thick with noxious fumes that Samulski describes it as "a fireball waiting to happen"-an extraordinary amount of the waste handled by CPC is gone, at least as far as provincial records are concerned.

When the waste CPC reported shipping elsewhere and the waste believed to be in the barrels is deducted from the total reported as having been handled by the company, 10.6 million litres and another 400,000 kilograms is unaccounted for. And a nasty brew it is: a toxic soup of wastes variously listed as flammable, poisonous, and corrosive; huge amounts of vaguely defined material listed only as "environmentally hazardous" or "leachable"; waste paints; enamels and lacquers; and, of course, that troubling chromium.

Coincidentally, letters and investigation notes filed in a thick bundle of materials in the Surrey offices of the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection and made available to Tristar reveal that Ilnicki was acting as an "agent" for General Waste Disposal Corporation. General Waste's former president and CEO was John Taggart. Taggart and Alan Price were also principals of another associated waste-disposal company known as Aqua Clean Ships Ltd. In 2002, the Straight revealed that millions of litres of toxic diesel bunker oil mixed with water in the holds of cruise ships was moved by Aqua Clean to points unknown for treatments unknown because the company failed to report nearly all such shipments.

Shortly after that story's publication, Aqua Clean lost all its cruise-ship business at the Port of Vancouver, an outcome that Price noted in a July 10, 2002, letter to the ministry's Environmental Protection Branch.

"The perception that the article portrays against the operation of Aqua Clean Ships has resulted in the cancellation of contracts by marine customers, concern by financial institutions, suspension of work under construction, and the termination of union employees. This is exactly what was expected by the person/s that orchestrated this article," Price wrote, going on to say: "The article is a serious attack on the competency of the B.C. Ministry of Environment."

Aqua Clean was also the subject of an earlier federal investigation that led to the seizure of incineration equipment the company was using to illegally burn waste on a barge moored just offshore in Vancouver Harbour. The subsequent investigation led to a court case that dragged out over a 26-month period. Gordon Thompson, a former federal environmental official familiar with the case, later described it as the most "extraordinary" in his 30 years of work as a public servant. Aqua Clean's legal manoeuvrings were ultimately in vain, however. Although the company was convicted, it received only a $1,000 fine.

Given the questionable environmental performance of some of Price and Taggart's enterprises, it is interesting to note that Ilnicki applied for permission to run a waste-oil treatment facility at a location in Abbotsford and that he did so as an "agent for General Waste". In a letter dated July 21, 1996, and sent to an engineering firm and copied to the then-provincial Ministry of Environment, Ilnicki not only called himself an agent for General Waste but went on to say that "John Taggart and his company are very committed to this project."

Taggart issued a $100 cheque to the Ministry of Environment in support of Ilnicki's application to run the waste-oil treatment facility in Abbotsford, and he hosted a meeting between ministry staff and Ilnicki at a General Waste facility on Beta Avenue in Burnaby in December 1997.

According to handwritten notes by Avtar Sundher of the ministry's special-waste section in Surrey, Taggart and Ilnicki were both present to discuss plans for an operation that would have the capacity to both store and treat 150,000 gallons of waste oil. Sundher's notes show that Taggart was "planning on [a] new business entity".

In light of the mess now left behind at Industrial Avenue, some of the comments made by Ilnicki to provincial government environmental officials are, in retrospect, darkly humorous. In August 1998, Ilnicki wrote to Kevin Johnston, another environmental official in the ministry's Surrey offices, saying: "It is our general opinion that this project should not fall in the Hazardous or Special Waste Category." In other words, the proposed "bunker processing facility"-a reference to waste bunker diesel fuel-should not be subject to provincial environmental laws. In another letter sent to Johnston and dated June of that year, Ilnicki again says he feels there's no need for a "special waste" designation for the proposed facility. "But," he then goes on to say, "for the sake of accountability to ourselves and to the various regulatory bodies, we will conform to your guideline structure. We will take the road of voluntary compliance, which in this case, should make everyone comfortable with our project."

But regulators were decidedly uncomfortable with the company. As various letters and memos in government files show, Ilnicki never did receive permission to operate a waste-oil processing facility, let alone the green light to accept any other hazardous wastes.

On December 13, 2001, Darrell Wakelin, a provincial pollution- prevention officer in Surrey who was also familiar with Aqua Clean's operations, entered CPC's facility with a special-waste audit form. Wakelin's handwritten notes reveal: large amounts of oily waste and antifreeze were stored on site; contaminated wastewater flowed unchecked from a "working pad" into the storm sewer; hazardous wastes were stored outside of secure areas; sulphuric acid was kept in containers with broken lids; and "oxidizers [were] stored with waste pest control products"-a matter of some concern because the proximity of one to the other could cause combustion. Wakelin's last written comment was that the "company doesn't have an adequate inventory system". In other words, it couldn't readily tell anyone what was on-site.

What Wakelin witnessed that day takes on added significance when other materials in the government's files are considered. For example, the issue of contaminants flowing into the storm sewer and on into the Fraser River was raised as a matter of concern three months earlier in a letter Wakelin sent to Ilnicki. (The Abbotsford News's Beyak reported that the company had its business licence suspended by the City of Abbotsford in 2004 for unlawfully discharging waste into the sanitary sewer system-essentially, waste flushed or pumped down the toilet.) The letter noted an almost comical setup for dealing with rainwater or storm water that came in contact with contaminants on the site.

"Storm-water collected from the 'working pad' flowed onto a piece of sheet metal that directed the flow of effluent (i.e. oily water) into a plastic pail (sump) that the sheet metal was balanced on," Wakelin wrote. "The effluent was then pumped via a green garden hose to the tank farm for storage. Please be advised that this current storm-water management system is not an adequate alternative to weather protection"-in other words, properly covering and storing all hazardous wastes so that rainwater would not wash toxins into the sewer system.

Another item in the same file shows that Wakelin's concern about possible combustion was well founded. A September 25, 2001, letter to Wakelin from Jason Ilnicki, CPC's general manager and Ed's son, notes an "incident" that occurred on the site the previous day.

"At approximately 9:00 AM, a Class 5.1 material [5.1 is a designation for hazardous waste] was being dissolved in a water bath to create a solution for further treatment on the working pad in a mixing tank. The material, Calcium Hypochlorite, was not in a granular form. Rather it was 'hard' and did not fully dissolve. This un-dissolved material came into contact with a latex based sawdust residue (the prior contents of the mixing tank) that may have been the source of an explosion," Ilnicki wrote, adding: "The resulting fire emitted smoke with a chlorine odour. The neighbouring businesses vacated upon the presence of this smoke."

Just half a year before the explosion, Jason Ilnicki phoned Wakelin. During the call on April 4, Ilnicki asked Wakelin if CPC could store PCB liquids at its facility. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are among the most persistent pollutants in the world and have been fingered as one of the main sources of toxic poisoning in the Strait of Georgia's southern resident killer whales. PCBs were commonly used in electrical transformers for decades until their U.S. maker, Monsanto, stopped production in 1977 after passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act. "Jason asked further about draining PCB transformers," Wakelin wrote in a memo. "I informed Jason that they would have to demonstrate their treatment technology and ability to remove PCB's such that the remaining oil was less than 50 ppm [parts per million] PCB."

Of some solace to the neighbouring businesses on Industrial Avenue that temporarily vacated following the September fire, Wakelin wrote: "Jason indicated that they would not pursue storage of PCB's at this time."

Throughout the numerous letters and memos in the provincial files, it is clear that environmental officials never granted CPC the permits to treat the waste entering the facility and that they knew deliveries of toxic chromium waste had entered the facility. They also knew that CPC didn't have the means to treat the chromium waste and that the company chose to "stockpile" it rather than pay the "increased disposal cost" that would be required were CPC to send the waste to a company that could properly handle it.

For these and other reasons, Wakelin noted in a handwritten internal letter dated October 2000 that "I reminded CPC that they must reduce their volume of special waste to below registration quantities and that no new special wastes are to be received at the facility."

Despite these reminders, truckload after truckload of toxins continued to flow to the facility. Between May 10, 2000, when the last chromium-contaminated waste arrived at CPC's facility, and September of last year, when Ilnicki was forced by the courts to turn the warehouse keys over to Samulski, just shy of 2,600 further shipments entered the facility. At no point during that time, as far as Tristar can glean from government files, did Ministry of Environment and, later, Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection officials once write to the companies that produced the waste in the first place telling them to stop all shipments to CPC.

"I'm not aware of any communications to the consignors and shippers of the waste that they should not ship to CPC. Such a communication would have told my client that the ministry was alive to the potential risks of consigning waste to a handler that wasn't capable of treating the material," Braul told the Straight. "Proper care wasn't taken."

The question now is how the provincial government plans to take care of the mass of toxic waste that remains on-site. The answer appears to be to try and get the sources that generated the waste in the first place to pick it up and take it elsewhere. In a March 8 letter to companies that sent waste to CPC, Jennifer McGuire of the ministry's Environmental Protection Division asks them to attend a meeting on March 31 at Surrey's Sheraton Hotel. The letter notes that CPC "has declared bankruptcy and has been evicted from" its Abbotsford facility. It adds that a preliminary estimate to dispose of the waste is $600,000. (Cleanup of contaminated soil at the site would presumably add to the bill.)

"The Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection have met with representatives of Tristar and believe that a voluntary, co-operative and fair resolution is achievable," McGuire writes. His letter makes no mention of whether or not the province feels it is in any way liable for a portion of the cleanup costs.

The Straight had several questions relating to the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection's handling of the CPC file, in particular whether or not it conducted an audit of what moved into and out of the Industrial Avenue facility and whether or not provincial environmental officials reviewed CPC's association with General Waste. But ministry communications director Max Cleeveley said pollution-prevention staff and Minister Bill Barisoff were unavailable for interviews.

"I'm afraid that the ministry is not in a position to comment on any issues associated with CPC because there are charges against the company before the courts," Cleeveley said in an e-mail reply to verbal questions.

The ministry did, however, talk in general terms about waste-management issues and possible changes to the way companies report the wastes that they carry. Eric Partridge, assistant deputy minister of the ministry's environmental-protection division, said the manifest system maintained by the ministry can be a valuable investigative tool but it has its problems.

For example, companies are currently required to fill out paper manifest forms that are then sent to the government and entered into a computer database. Many of the forms received by the government are known as "multiple" manifests. These forms may detail how a company sent a truck out to pick up small amounts of, say, waste oil from a number of different garages. The mixed waste oil is then sent as one large shipment to a waste handler. Each separate waste pickup on a multiple pickup run is supposed to be recorded by the shipper. But in the provincial government's electronic database, such mixed shipments are simply recorded as "multiple" pickups. There is no indication of who produced it in the first place.

If anyone in the government wanted to investigate a company recording a lot of its waste shipments as multiple pickups, they would have a time-consuming job on their hands. "You'd have to go back to the paper copies to see where it came from," Partridge said. "And that's something we're hoping to change so we can have better and easier audits and the public can have access."

In Canada Petroleum Corporation's case, the largest source of waste associated with the company is listed simply as "multiple". No company names appear to tell government employees or members of the public who might acquire the data where the waste originated. According to the manifests CPC filed with the province, the company carried more than four million litres of toxic materials and another 239,000 kilograms of waste listed as multiple pickups.

Partridge says the government is considering moving to an electronic filing system that would require waste shippers, waste-treatment facilities, and waste-disposal companies to enter electronically information on all the waste they handle, for easier government and public access. He also said the government is considering moving to a system where any company producing hazardous waste would be responsible for that waste right through to its final treatment and disposal, rather than the current system where waste is consigned to someone else for treatment and disposal-essentially a system in which the buck is passed from one party to the other.

The so-called cradle-to-grave approach ensures "greater responsibility", Partridge said. The upside to such a move is it makes one party responsible for the waste. The downside is that it may involve a lot more paperwork, public oversight, and cost.

As the government continues to mull over its future hazardous-waste options, however, Tristar's Sev Samulski is left with a massive problem that he says was not of his making, a headache he says he should never have had to endure. "I kept telling the province that there were problems there," Samulski says. "And it's obvious from what's in their files that they knew there were problems too. They were negligent in letting waste continue to be trucked there." He adds that it was no big mystery what was going on at Industrial Avenue.

It was obvious to anyone who entered CPC's warehouse. It was evident in a ballooning file in the provincial government's Surrey offices. It was hiding in plain sight, there for anyone who cared to look.