NDP environment critic George Heyman has been on his feet in the legislature repeatedly over the past two weeks trying to get the B.C. government to release information about a polluted aquifer in the North Okanagan.
He hasn't managed to pry much loose, with Environment Minister Mary Polak telling him that most of the information that can be released has been released.
This has stunned Mr. Heyman, who is of the opinion that information concerning public health should not be restricted.
"We're talking about drinking water as it affects residents of the Hullcar Valley, Spallumcheen and the Splatsin First Nation," Mr. Heyman said in an interview. "The health risks of excess levels of nitrates [in the water supply there] are significant for infants, for nursing mothers, for seniors, and they can pose risks for any adult. This is not a small matter."
At issue are rising nitrate levels in the Hullcar aquifer, which the Steele Springs Waterworks District taps into. The aquifer lies beneath farm fields, and in July, 2014, the local health authority, Interior Health, issued a water-quality advisory about it.
"High nitrate levels are a health concern for infants less than three months in age and can also increase the risk of stomach cancer in adults. ... [Take] precautions and use an alternative source of water," Interior Health warned.
Nearly two years later, that advisory is still in place, and the people of Hullcar Valley are still waiting for the provincial government to complete investigations and take action to clean up the drinking water.
Mr. Heyman has been pushing the issue in the House because he doesn't think people should have to wait for answers about such an urgent issue. Recently he asked the government to release all of the data it has, including monitoring reports on soils, surface water and groundwater that H.S. Jansen and Sons Farm Ltd. was ordered to do.
Concerned about the spreading of liquid manure over a field above the Hullcar aquifer, the Ministry of Environment issued a compliance order to the farm on March 6, 2014. That order directed the farm to "cease any further nutrient (manure or fertilizer) applications to the field of concern ... in the 2014 calendar year," and to meet a number of other conditions.
One thing the farmer – who has declined to be interviewed – was ordered to do was to appoint a "qualified professional" who could assess the farm's nutrient application rates, and come up with a fertilization plan that didn't pollute the aquifer.
Mr. Heyman feels the data in that farm plan could provide important information to valley residents. But that's where Ms. Polak drew the line.
"There is only one element of information that has not been provided immediately, and that is the dairy's own nutrient management plan. It is not our documentation," she said, telling the House in Question Period that the report belongs to the farm.
The idea that the government could order a third party to do a report, then restrict access to the data because it is private property, "seems to me to be ridiculous," Mr. Heyman said. "It makes no sense to me [the farm would own the information]. And if that is the case, then the ministry should be doing its own testing."
Ms. Polak also told the legislature that the pollution of the Hullcar aquifer can't all be laid at the feet of H.S. Jansen and Sons Farm.
"There have been samples taken from eight sites in the Hullcar Valley. In all likelihood, we are told from those who have the expertise, there are multiple sites responsible, and this is not uncommon in areas where there has been intensive farming for more than 100 years," she said.
The record released by the government so far on this file, however, shows that the Ministry of Environment identified the farm as the most probable source in 2014; that it restricted, then allowed, the spreading of manure; and that it ordered frequent testing for nitrates in soils and water.
The Splatsin First Nation, Township of Spallumcheen, Steele Springs Water District and a citizens group called Save Hullcar Aquifer Team have been invited to meet with a government team on Monday to discuss the nitrate problem. They are hoping to finally get some answers.