Penner's spin wears thin

Late in the afternoon of August 26, B.C. Environment Minister Barry Penner took the extraordinary step of declaring a state of emergency at an industrial park in the Fraser Valley where a company, operating without permits, had illegally stockpiled tons of toxic wastes for years.

The wording of the announcement and its release late on a Friday afternoon, when media outlets had little chance of gathering relevant background, was curious. Curious because nothing that Penner's ministry offered by way of why a "Declaration of Environmental Emergency" had been signed was actually news. And curious because the announcement failed to mention several other important things that heretofore have not been reported. For example, that the province had already quietly hired a company to clean up the site, a job that could now cost taxpayers $2 million; that the government had not put the cleanup contract out to public bid, contravening its own rules; and that all of this would have been unnecessary had the government clamped down on the offending company years ago when problems first came to light.

At 3:35 that Friday afternoon, an "information bulletin" released by Penner's ministry noted that "safety precautions" were being taken in light of the discovery of "mislabelled waste containers" at 33790 Industrial Avenue in Abbotsord. The bulletin said the containers were filled with something "potentially explosive". Ministry staff, along with an unnamed consultant, had been "temporarily moved" from the site following the discovery. However, the bulletin concluded, members of the public were in "no immediate danger".

Then why the declaration of an "emergency"?

One crucial fact omitted from the ministry's vaguely worded communiqué was the name of the offending company: Canada Petroleum Corporation. CPC was charged with numerous violations of B.C.'s Waste Management Act in 2003, pleading guilty to two charges and receiving a $10,000 fine earlier this year. In 2004, the City of Abbotsford revoked its business licence for, among other things, dumping paint thinner down the sewer. Although ostensibly in the business of treating waste oils, CPC accepted just about anything at its leased Abbotsford facility, including shipments of wastes laced with carcinogenic metals like chromium.

The sorry mess at CPC, a mess inherited by the landowner, Tristar Brick and Block-which has been in a protracted dispute with the Environment Ministry over who bears responsibility for the cleanup-was well-known to ministry officials. Abbotsford News reporter Trudy Beyak did a stellar job of reporting on the intrigues at the site. In March, the Georgia Straight built on that work, showing that ministry officials had documented serious problems there dating back years. Internal government documents showed that ministry staff knew that wastes were improperly labelled or not labelled at all, that poisonous and flammable wastes were illegally stockpiled, that an explosion and fire had already occurred at the site, and that all of this was happening without the company having the requisite permits.

In addition, the Straight reviewed a lengthy database maintained by the Environment Ministry on hazardous-waste movements that showed that an astonishing amount of toxins reported as being shipped by CPC to Abbotsford were now unaccounted for. According to its own data, which the ministry chose not to analyze, some 10.6 million litres and another 400,000 kilograms of hazardous wastes handled by CPC were simply gone.

With all of these facts available, what could possibly be "discovered" in Abbotsord on Friday, August 26, that would account for Penner's declaration? The Straight asked. Neither the minister nor the deputy minister, Chris Trumpy, responded. Neither did the minister nor his deputy return calls from days earlier, after other developments in the CPC saga surfaced that previously have not been reported.

On August 3, three weeks before the alleged emergency, the ministry quietly asked six companies specializing in toxic wastes to bid on cleaning up the CPC site. Only through a Freedom of Information request will the public learn which companies those are. But one, NewAlta Corporation, won the contract. Brian Clark, an Environment Ministry regional manager in Surrey, told the Straight the contract is valued at $540,000, and possibly more-which appears a strong possibility-depending on what is found on-site.

In March 2005, NewAlta submitted details to Tristar outlining how it would clean up the site. NewAlta's estimated costs were more than $733,000. (Penner's subsequent declaration of an emergency allows up to $2 million to be spent on the site.) Tristar owner Sev Samulski could not be reached for comment. Earlier, however, he told the Straight that he felt the province bore a responsibility to him and the public for failing to shut down CPC years ago.

NewAlta clearly knew in March, when it submitted its proposal to Tristar, that potentially explosive materials were on the site and that several of the chemicals stored there were not identified. "When handling these types of chemicals, personnel will use the highest level of protection possible," NewAlta said.

This was not news to government. In fact, when the ministry asked NewAlta and others to submit bids, it provided a June "site inspection" document written by Environment Ministry officials noting the presence of unnamed "Class 4 wastes", which are "easily ignitable" and at "high risk of fire".

According to government rules on the awarding of contracts to companies or individuals working for the province, all services provided with a value of more than $100,000 must be publicly offered and posted on a Web site maintained by the province called BC Bid. There are few exceptions to this rule. By advertising business opportunities funded by public dollars, transparency and public accountability is ensured.

One exception is if an "unforseeable situation of urgency" arises. But the Straight has been unable to find any information suggesting that an emergency can be retroactively declared, thus obviating the earlier failure to publicly tender a contract.

Two days before Penner declared the emergency in Abbotsford, the Straight asked numerous questions of the minister's public-affairs branch as a first step to arranging interviews with the minister and his deputy. No calls were returned. Questions included how the contract was awarded and whether or not in awarding it the Ministry was in essence admitting it bore some responsibility for the mess that occurred in Abbotsford.

Those questions remain unanswered, according to ministry public-affairs officer Tiffany Akins, because "breaking news" at the CPC site prevented the ministry from meeting the Straight's interview requests.

So what does one make of the declaration of an environmental emergency? A cynic would suggest that it presented an opportunity for the government to spin the story in a favourable way, one that conveniently ignored the facts that a) no public call was made for interested parties to bid on the job, and b) that by initiating a taxpayer cleanup, the government was acknowledging that its earlier failure to enforce its own rules exacerbated problems. A more trusting soul might suggest that something truly horrific was found on the site last Friday and that a grave emergency was at hand.

Until such time as the government tells the public what new dangers have been uncovered at the site, however, the cynics will be more than justified in their suspicions.

In the meantime, it is worth reiterating that problems aplenty were unearthed in Abbotsford years ago.

Why weren't environmental laws enforced back then? If they had been, would taxpayers have been saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs? These questions deserve answers. Perhaps the pubic will get them in some future government information bulletin.