A photo taken by Ministry of Environment inspectors on Nov. 22, 2018. The photo shows manure runoff on the south side of the storage facility. Ministry of Environment.

Company’s ‘toxic’ stench at Abbotsford school prompts district’s appeal to Ministry of Education for help

Enforcement centered on voluntary compliance has “no teeth” while kids become sick

Shannon Gaudette stood in front of Abbotsford’s board of education on Dec. 3 and passionately expressed the health concerns she and many other parents have for the children at King Traditional Elementary. She was fighting back tears by the end.

“Students are consistently feeling unwell, getting sick to their stomach, reporting that their stomachs hurt, headaches, not wanting to eat their lunches, covering their faces with their coats and sweaters when they are outside and breathing,” Gaudette said. “93 Land Company is well aware of the negative effects their operation is having… but they just don’t seem to care.”

The two and half year toxic stench saga afflicting the school has the board of education feeling like they have exhausted their communication tools with B.C.’s Ministry of the Environment, prompting an to appeal to the Ministry of Education for help.

At Monday’s meeting, Abbotsford’s school trustees voted with an overwhelming consensus to write a letter to their provincial ministry requesting their help pressuring the Ministry of Environment to step up enforcement on the manure composting facility located across the street from the school.

“While we’re not in the same situation as the students, parents, community and teachers, there is a collective frustration here,” said Stan Petersen, chair of the board. “We haven’t been able to get other ministries to take care of it, maybe we can get the one most closely connected to us [to act].”

The facility operated by 93 Land Company has received four warnings of non-compliance and two monetary penalties totalling $29,000 for improper storage and importation of manure since buying the property in March 2017. The most recent fine was on June 17, which was paid shortly after it was received.

RELATED: Toxic smell returns to Abbotsford elementary school raising health concerns for students, teachers and parents

Students and staff at the school have reported nausea, headaches, breathing issues, sore throats and more – all symptoms related to manure exposure typically found in farm workers, according to the National Collaborative Centre for Environmental Health. There have been 14 WorkSafeBC claims filed by staff at the school related to these symptoms.

Even though the Ministry of Environment is accountable for managing outdoor air quality standards related to industry, and Minister George Heyman himself calling the operation “illegal” in a March 2018 letter, the ministry’s enforcement policy is centered around voluntary compliance.

“Which means there’s no teeth,” said Rhonda Pauls, vice-chair of the board. “I think back to Erin Brockovich and I think, where’s the case history that says we know that children are safe in that environment?”

Parents were initially told to report their complaints to the Ministry of Environment’s RAPP line – which deals with pollution reports – but a Nov. 13 letter to the district is now instructing parents to report their complaints directly to the company itself because “the ministry does not have the powers to regulate odor.”

“Going back to the company is a dead end. That’s not going to happen or help,” said school board trustee Shirley Wilson. “It’s like going to knock on our next-door neighbours to say we don’t like what you’re cooking, right? Like hello?”

The Nov. 13 letter says the company has “shown a strong willingness to comply” and is currently seeking a waste discharge permit to legalize their operations which is under review by the Ministry of the Environment.

RELATED: Abbotsford parent OK with manure facility near school getting permit

But the most recent inspection on Nov. 24 found 93 Land Company was still in violation of the Environmental Land Management Act.

“Considering we’ve gone through two years of sending them lots of information… The letter here I find quite dismissive” said Ray Velestuk, secretary treasurer for the school district.

The Ministry of Environment, as well as an independent third party hired by the school district, conducted air tests on school grounds two years ago and found it under the acceptable thresholds for indoor air quality set by Fraser Health, according to Tanya Tighe, senior manager for organizational health and safety for the district.

But she said accurately capturing the “odour events,” as the ministry calls them, is a challenge due to the stench worsening at certain times of the day and in certain seasons.

The district plans to conduct further test in the future.


@portmoodypigeon
patrick.penner@abbynews.com

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