When B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake stood in the legislature last week to answer questions that had been directed to the Environment Ministry, it signalled just how seriously the government is taking the issue of safe drinking water in the North Okanagan.
Or did it?
NDP environment critic George Heyman raised the issue, asking why the government had not released test results related to a decision to allow a dairy farm to continue spraying liquid manure on land above an aquifer tainted with nitrates.
For two years, the 150 people served by the Steele Springs Waterworks District, in the district of Spallumcheen, have been under a water advisory. Despite that, the Ministry of Environment has issued several authorizations for the dairy farm to continue spraying manure, even as nitrate levels rose.
"In Spallumcheen, locals are legitimately concerned about the safety of their drinking water, and they want a public health order to stop provincially approved liquid manure spraying above their water source," Mr. Heyman said in Question Period. "Yet this government won't even provide the local waterworks district with the test results and documents the Environment Ministry relied upon in its decision to allow manure spraying above the aquifer."
He asked Environment Minister Mary Polak why Spallumcheen residents could not have "the information they need to ensure that their drinking water is safe and protected?"
It was Ms. Polak's ministry that first investigated concerns about water quality and identified a large dairy farm as the likely source of nitrate pollution.
But it was Mr. Lake who jumped to his feet to answer, signalling that the issue had been elevated from an environmental concern to a matter of public health.
"Safe drinking water is obviously something that we in the Ministry of Health and in all health authorities are concerned about," he replied.
He said the Environment and Health ministries were working with Interior Health to ensure safe drinking water for the residents of Spallumcheen and assured the legislature that people were not immediately at risk.
Mr. Lake went on to say that it was not known who exactly was tainting the aquifer.
"There are four different agriculture operations that could be impacting that aquifer," he said.
"It's important to understand exactly where the problem is. The members opposite would like us to shut down an agricultural operation without the proper evidence to take that kind of action. We are continuing to do the hard work necessary to ensure we're making evidence-based decisions on this file."
It was an interesting response because, until Mr. Lake mentioned it, nobody had asked for any farms to be "shut down." Spallumcheen residents have only asked for a moratorium on the spreading of manure on the land above the aquifer.
Mr. Heyman reminded the government that it has a duty to warn the public about potential health or safety risks, and he demanded that soil and water test results be released.
"That work is ongoing. The testing is being done," Mr. Lake said. "Action will be taken if we can define exactly where the nitrates are coming from, and we will address it once we get that information."
His response made it sound like government is working flat out to resolve the problem.
But it was March, 2014, when Interior Health first advised Steele Springs Waterworks District that pregnant women, babies under six months, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems should not drink the water. That same month, the Ministry of Environment issued a compliance order that identified the dairy farm thought to be responsible for the nitrate pollution.
So for two years, the government has known the aquifer was tainted – and has apparently known, or at least suspected, the source.
After hearing Mr. Lake's comments in the legislature, Andrea Gunner, a professional agrologist who lives in the Spallumcheen area, sent him an e-mail expressing her frustration about the lack of action.
"Stop the spin," she wrote. "Start communicating in good faith."