Abbotsford’s board of education plans to speak against an application to legalize a manure facility whose seasonal stench is allegedly making children and staff sick at a rural elementary school.
The district was notified on Monday that 93 Land Company’s application to the city for a non-farm-use permit at the property, located directly across from King Traditional Elementary, is going forward. The board has until next week to draft a response.
“Are parents going to have to stand in front of the gates with their kids to blockade these vehicles from going in and out [of the property], and create some sort of media frenzy for someone to act?” asked school board trustee Korky Neufeld at public meeting on Tuesday. “This has gone on long enough and they are not acting. I find it appalling.”
Since the company began its operations in 2017, staff and young students at the school have complained of headaches, nausea, breathing issues and sore throats. Staff have filed 14 related WorkSafeBC claims in relation to the stench.
Board members have previously expressed frustration about attempts to get the Ministry of the Environment to act. In December, they voted unanimously to sent a letter to the Ministry of Education, hoping to increase pressure on the province’s environment regulators to step up enforcement.
A letter of response from the environment ministry did nothing to alleviate the board members’ concerns.
“A final review of 93 Land Company’s permit application package is pending a receipt of a Best Achievable Control Technology (BACT) assessment to determine the most effective options to capture and treat air emissions,” a ministry official wrote. “I am hopeful that the outcome of our next compliance response assists in the resolution of the matter.”
“I am concerned they’ve operated there for two or three years without all the relevant permits, in contravention of city bylaws, in contravention of the municipal waste discharge [bylaws], all these things that they don’t have in place,” said Ray Velestuk, secretary-treasurer of the school district. “I think they are operating in some grey areas.”
Neufeld called the ministry’s response “political.” He said he doesn’t understand why the company has largely been able to avoid serious penalties.
“If I [didn’t follow regulations], they would put a stop-work [order] around my site. These guys have operated for how many years? And nothing!” he said. “They have an opportunity here to act on good faith, on behalf of students and the public, and do something about this and they haven’t.”
A history of non-compliance
|King Traditional Elementary lies behind the hedges at the end of this road. Photo taken from Ministry of Environment inspection reports.|
The owners of the company have a history of non-compliance when it comes to provincial regulations.
Since purchasing the property, 93 Land Company has received four warnings of non-compliance for improper storage and importation of manure. Over the summer, it received a monetary penalty of $9,000 – which was promptly paid.
But a similar operation – under the name Nature’s Nutrients – was forced to move off another Abbotsford property it was leasing after inspectors discovered the company was violating city bylaws and provincial agricultural legislation, according to David Assels, an inspection officer for the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC).
Nature’s Nutrients and 93 Land Company have the same owners listed under the B.C. corporate registry.
“It’s the landowners’ responsibility to make sure that they’re compliant with the applicable legislation,” Assels said. “We told the owner that the activity taking place on that property wasn’t compliant with the legislation … That person was successful in getting Nature’s Nutrients to leave the property.”
In 2012, the ALC denied an application for a non-farm-use permit to create a commercial composting operation on the property. Two years later, a joint inspection by city bylaw and ALC inspection officers led to a stop-work order. Another inspection in 2015 found the property was finally in compliance.
But on Oct. 18, 2016, city bylaw inspectors discovered a composting business was again operating on the property. The city ordered the property owner to immediately stop the operation.
In February 2017, 93 Land Company Ltd. was incorporated as a company. It began operations at the property across the street from King Traditional Elementary in March 2017.
|Shannon Gaudette, with a group on parents from King Traditional Elementary, detail their concerns at an Abbotsford School Board meeting on Dec. 3, 2019.|
The parents of King Traditional Elementary have been calling for action against the company’s stench for years, but figuring out which regulatory body is responsible has been a confusing hurdle.
Shannon Gaudette, the parent at the forefront of that advocacy, gathered the signatures of 300 parents for a petition to the school board in January 2018, and has continually emailed the ALC, the company’s management, and Environment Minister George Heyman.
Heyman wrote back to the parent group in March 2018, calling 93 Land Company an “illegal operation.” He also said the ministry has been looking into the company since the fall of 2017.
Parents at the school were initially instructed to report their concerns to the ministry’s RAPP line – which deals with pollution complaints. But on Nov. 13, 2019, the ministry sent a letter to the district informing parents to redirect their concerns directly to 93 Land Company, because “the ministry does not have the powers to regulate odour.”
The ALC, while in charge of preserving the province’s agricultural land, only regulates companies when the land is improperly used. A previous ALC file on 93 Land Company was closed in 2017, but the file has recently been reopened after several allegations of non-farm-use activity on the property, Assels said.
The Ministry of the Environment and the ALC currently both have files open, and the two regulators are now working together, he said.
“They have an angle they are working with the Environmental Management Act, and the ALC is looking into what’s happening on the property now,” he said. “My understanding is that [93 and Company’s] business model might have changed.”
What’s happening now
School board trustees have now expressed a desire to speak directly to city councillors about their worries – something they have never done before.
“I feel it would carry more weight than a written response,” said Stan Petersen, chair of the school board. “We’ve got an opportunity here… I really do like the idea of us presenting to city council. It would be a first, but I think we’d find a sympathetic ear.
The owners of 93 Land Company appear to be gearing up their public relations efforts after the large amount of community complaints. The company has hired Terrawest, an environmental consulting firm, which is set to meet both with school district staff and a parent group in early March.
Trustee Shirley Wilson said the company has also been keeping a close eye on the school board.
“I understand the company is following us at our meetings and in the media,” she said. “We should consider a media release to let the public know our stance on this issue.”
In a written response, the Ministry of the Environment said its staff is working closely with the company through the permit application process so it can operate in a way that protects the environment and human health.
An environmental inspection of the property will take place in the coming weeks, and the company is required to submit a assessment to the ministry on how they plan to reduce their effect on the community. That assessment is due on Feb. 14.
“The company should be capable of operating in its current location without issue once they have implemented best achievable technology practices for odour and leachate control,” the ministry said. “The Ministry inspection will consider the results of the BACT assessment and the Ministry’s Compliance and Enforcement Policy and Procedure in determining the outcome of the inspection.”
The most recent inspection of the property, in November 2019, declared the company to still be in violation of the Environmental Management Act.
(Correction: previous articles on this subject said the Ministry of Environment had fined 93 Land Company twice, totalling $29,000. In fact, only one $9,000 administrative penalty has been issued.)