Stephen Hume: Province sinks into morass of aquifer contamination

by Stephen Hume, originally posted on April 24, 2016


Three professional hydrologists have told the provincial government that it should immediately impose a full ban on spreading liquid manure above a contaminated aquifer that provides drinking water to several hundred householders in the Okanagan Valley.

The scientists with Western Water Associates, a Vernon-based company consulting in hydrogeology and water resource management to the Steele Spring Waterworks District, say in an April 21 letter to the four ministries involved that liquid manure sprayed on the aquifer by a big dairy operation is “extremely likely, if not certainly, the source of most of the nitrate pollution” in the Hullcar aquifer at Spallumcheen.

“This contamination poses a clear risk to public health,” write Ryan Rhodes, Douglas Geller and Bryer Manwell. “The prudent action to be taken is to impose a moratorium on further liquid effluent spreading.”

Meanwhile, the faster our provincial cabinet ministers dig, the deeper the hole in which they find themselves regarding fears that a dairy farm spreading liquid manure has contaminated the aquifer.

Environment Minister Mary Polak, Health Minister Terry Lake and Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick are all now up to the eyeballs in this unpleasant mess.

Their ministries are finally collaborating on the inter-ministry Hullcar aquifer working group, launched March 11, a speedy two years after residents first began expressing serious concerns that sharply rising nitrate levels in their tap and well water seemed to coincide with applications of liquid manure on fields over their drinking water source.

Government defends its snail’s pace by saying that it is notoriously difficult to identify the source point of nitrate pollution. Heavens, it might be coming from the septic fields of the very residents who are complaining. It might be coming from, you know, like, anywhere.

Yet even the provincial government’s own experts pointed to liquid manure from what’s now one of the Okanagan’s biggest dairy operations as the likely source of nitrate pollution in the aquifer when they imposed a compliance order requiring government approval before any further effluent applications.

The province promptly approved four more applications of liquid manure in amounts that totalled more than 120,000 litres.

“There is little doubt in our minds that the reason for elevated nitrate concentrations in Steele Springs is due to liquid effluent spreading on the so-called ‘field of concern,’ which is currently under a ministry of environment compliance order. This compliance order unfortunately allowed continued application of effluent and now, two years later, the drinking water is still contaminated,” the hydrologists wrote.

You can say that again.

Nitrate levels in the water have risen by 565 per cent in the last five years. Contaminants were less that two parts per million in August, 2011. They were 13.3 parts per million in February, 2016. Canadian drinking water guidelines set a maximum safety standard of 10 parts per million.

Government, instead of responding with alarm, set up its working group to study the problem and pooh-poohed the health risks — although its own public health office put out an advisory warning that pregnant women, babies under six months, seniors, and people with weakened immune systems (think cancer patients on chemotherapy), or those with any chronic heart, lung or blood conditions should find another source of drinking water than their tap.

Furthermore, ministers answering questions in the legislature implied that addressing the problem of the contaminated drinking water aquifer is somehow an opposition attempt that seeks to shut down farming.

“We do not believe public health and protection of the environment is being held paramount in government’s handling of this issue,” the three hydrologists wrote. “A precautionary approach is warranted for this situation. It is clear contamination of a drinking water source has occurred and is occurring. This contamination poses a clear risk to public health.”

Under provincial law, public health officials have power prevent contamination of drinking water sources.

“These powers do not require conclusive proof of the source of the contamination, only identification of a likely or probable source. There is a clear probable source in this instance,” the hydrologists wrote. “We strongly urge government to take action now and impose the requested moratorium.”

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