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B.C. community urging province to protect aquifer tainted with fertilizer

A farmer spreads manure on a field in the Township of Spallumcheen, North Okanagan. Residents are concerned the spreading of manure is contaminating the local aquifer.

Al Price

Residents of a small valley in the North Okanagan are asking health officials to stop the spreading of millions of gallons of liquid manure on land over a drinking water aquifer that has become contaminated with nitrate.

B.C.'s Ministry of Environment said the farm suspected of causing the problem is in compliance and remains under scrutiny, with water samples being taken monthly.

But Al Price,  immediate past vice-chair of the Steele Springs Water District, which supplies about 150 people with drinking water drawn from the Hullcar aquifer, said residents are worried the aquifer is becoming so polluted that sickness could result.

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"We're hoping the government will see the light and impose a moratorium on the spreading of effluent on the field of concern above Steele Springs and above the aquifer," he said. "In places in that field, there has been testing and there are four inches of soil over top of coarse gravel."

Mr. Price said about a dozen homes, his included, have put in expensive water treatment systems because of concerns about high nitrate levels. But many in the valley can't afford to do that or to buy bottled water, and so they're getting drinking water from the tap, even though they know it is a health risk.

"They are [drinking tainted water] through lack of choice," he said.

He said the Steele Springs Water District in the Township of Spallumcheen, where the aquifer is located – near Armstrong, about 70 kilometres north of Kelowna – has been under a water-quality advisory issued by Interior Health for the past two years because of high nitrate levels.

But Mr. Price, who is also a member of a citizens' action group called Save Hullcar Aquifer Team, said during that time, the ministry issued authorizations allowing HS Jansen and Sons Farm Ltd. to continue spreading "liquid effluent" – a mixture of manure diluted with water – on 210 acres of land over the aquifer.

After nitrate levels spiked early in 2014, the ministry issued a compliance order to the farm, stating it had to stop spreading liquid effluent because the government "had reasonable grounds to believe" water pollution regulations had been contravened.

The compliance order stated that the farm had provided more nitrate than crops could absorb when it applied more than four million U.S. gallons of liquid effluent to the field, and that further nutrient applications could only take place if authorizations were issued.

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Later that year, the ministry issued two authorizations allowing the farm to apply a total of more than five million gallons of liquid effluent on the field. In 2015, two more authorizations allowed the farm to spread 2.5 million gallons.

In a letter written on behalf of Save Hullcar Aquifer Team, the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) at the University of Victoria asks Interior Health, which delivers health services in B.C.'s Southern Interior, to step in and protect the aquifer. In the letter, which is being sent Monday, the ELC requests "a complete and permanent moratorium on the application of liquid manure effluent" on the field over the aquifer.

A woman who answered the phone at HS Jansen and Sons Farm Ltd. declined comment. The farm is a third-generation operation that raises more than 800 dairy cows on about 1,000 acres.

A spokesperson for Interior Health said officials want to read the letter before commenting.

ELC legal director Calvin Sandborn said nitrate levels in the aquifer are high enough to pose a health risk to anyone who has a suppressed immune system, to the elderly and to infants.

"Certainly don't give it to babies in their formula, because it can kill them," he said.

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In its authorizations, the Environment Ministry states that the "approved application rate will remain protective of the aquifer."

But Mr. Sandborn said the government has allowed too much liquid effluent to be spread on the field.

"Since they've authorized those applications, the amount of nitrates [in the drinking water] has gone up. ... How could that possibly be protective?" he asked.

Ministry spokesman David Karn said that since issuing the compliance order in 2014, staff have visited the dairy operation monthly to collect aquifer samples.

"To date, the Jansen dairy farm has complied with the order, which included hiring a qualified professional to conduct regular soil and water sampling and provide annual sampling reports to the ministry," he stated. "The ministry's compliance team continues to monitor the situation and plans to conduct inspections in the area in the near future."

Editor's Note: The original newspaper version and an earlier digital version of this article incorrectly said Al Price is vice-chair of the Steele Springs Water District. He is the immediate past vice-chair. As well, the earlier versions incorrectly reported that the Township of Spallumcheen has been under a  water-quality advisory issued by Interior Health for the past two years because of high nitrate levels. In fact, it is only the Steele Springs Water District in the Township which is under the advisory. This digital version has been corrected in both places.

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