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The 20-year saga of a fouled creek

Environment Ministry knew for two decades about run-off problems at farm before newspaper article spurred action.
Run-off and dumped milk from a McMillan Road farm has been cited as the cause of strong odours in Gill Creek.

While there is a plan in place to stop manure runoff and discarded milk from a McMillan dairy farm from fouling a local creek, residents are questioning why it took 20 years to find a solution.

Last September, The News reported that a pair of McMillan Court residents were fed up with a small creek that smelled “like an outhouse” for much of that summer. Karen Copeland and Sherri Godfrey said the small creek had been a source of rotten smells dating back more than a decade. The small watercourse is known as Gill Creek and collects water from local storm drains along McMillan Road and runs west into Lonzo Creek Park. Copeland and Godfrey said the stream had periodically turned a white colour for years.

When her sister visited last August, Copeland said “there were times where we couldn’t stand to be outside on my back deck because the smell was so bad.”

Officials have since traced the source of the odour to a dairy farm about one kilometre north of Gill Creek, on McMillan Road. The family of the farm’s current owner, Kathy Cooper, has lived and worked on the property for 90 years. As development has overtaken the area, drainage patterns have changed, but the dairy operation has remained. A barn on the property sits just feet from a steep retaining wall built decades ago by the District of Matsqui, with McMillan Road below.

Emails obtained from the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture by The News through a Freedom of Information request show issues from runoff at the farm was first noted two decades ago. The Ministry of Environment said in a statement that it had been aware of the farm’s “waste management practices since 1996,” and that its “compliance approach in this situation has been to work with the farm operator, the dairy association and local and provincial government agencies to improve the onsite waste management practices and see the operation in compliance with the Agricultural Waste Control Regulation.”

However, the emails suggest that even after two decades working with the farm, the environment ministry had to be prodded to respond to last summer’s issues. And they show plans to address the issue accelerated only after The News published an article on the problem on Sept. 16, 2015.

Cooper told The News that she was only notified last fall that a drain at the back of the property led to a storm-runoff culvert, rather than a sewage treatment facility.

In September 2010, the city sent Cooper a letter about concerns about runoff. After a second complaint was received just four months later, in January 2011, the city issued two tickets under its Waterways Protection Bylaw and contacted the Ministry of Environment.

The problems continued, though, and the City of Abbotsford contacted the Environment Ministry after receiving complaints in January 2012 and April 2013. The fines issued in 2011 were also never paid. Last August, another complaint was received and an official report was submitted. Four more complaints were recorded over the next three months, according to a report compiled by the city’s environmental co-ordinator, Pauline Favero. Copeland, meanwhile, began to tweet pictures of her sludgy and smelly local creek.

On Sept. 17, a day after The News first wrote about the issue, Orlando Schmidt, the ministry’s regional manager, referenced the article in an email and noted the ministries of agriculture and environment had been dealing with the farm for 20 years about “discharge events.”

Schmidt noted the city was looking to arrange an inter-agency meeting “to strategize so that the issue can be resolved once for all, rather than continue to reoccur.”

When a colleague, who had the farm on her list of places to visit, queried Schmidt how to proceed, given the newly scheduled meeting, Schmidt replied: “there were a few developments [REDACTED] today because of the media article.”

On Oct. 1, after another complaint was received, Doug Haagen, the city’s manager of “Waste Water Collection,” wrote an email encouraging quick action.

“I hope we can resolve this soon as we can’t sustain this,” he wrote. Another email noted that the city had contacted the ministries of agriculture and environment, along with the BC Dairy Association (BCDA), to address the problems.

A Ministry of Agriculture staffer noted that the farm “likely needs manure storage,” and did not seem to have “anything other than a solids pile in the field … and some pad storage.” The official continued: “I have never seen any liquid manure management other than runoff to McMillan.”

Another agriculture staffer noted that the city was seeking “more direct action,” as fines had not been effective. But she added that the Ministry of Environment’s response to the situation was “a bit muted.” A colleague suggested the Agriculture Ministry and the city “may need to reinforce the need for [Environment] to engage.”

That month, the BCDA visited the farm and learned Cooper was dumping milk down a drain behind her barn, thinking the milk went into the sewer system and the James Wastewater Treatment Plant, rather than into the storm culverts. On Sept. 30, a “whole tank of milk” had been dumped, causing Gill Creek to again turn white. Told the milk runs into the stream, Cooper pledged to stop the practice.

According to the emails, Cooper told the officials the “timing isn’t right” to work on an Environmental Farm Plan, as suggested. Neither was she “overly interested in discussing infrastructure upgrades,” although an independent environment consultant had become involved.

Officials deemed the problem to be “primarily an environmental issue,” and forwarded it to the ministry of environment.

By November, though, the city was “looking to disconnect the owner’s connection to the storm system” and asking the farm owner to look at “on-site solutions.”

The emails obtained by The News end in October. But since then, City of Abbotsford spokesperson Katherine Treloar told The News that the farm owner has now pledged to undertake work in the spring to control surface runoff from entering the city’s storm sewer system and finding its way to the creek. The work will include piping installed in a basin that will channel runoff into an “infiltration gallery” – a structure that will ensure the runoff enters the soil beneath the farm – rather than the culvert beside the property.

Copeland is pleased that a solution to the creek’s stench may have been found, and says the water has been free of milk since last fall. But she wonders what took so long.

“I’m very hopeful that this resolution has happened, but it’s disappointing it took this many years,” she said.

In its statement to The News last week, the ministry said: “Manure management does however continue to be a challenge for this operator. The ministry continues to monitor this situation and applies enforcement tools as appropriate. Compliance efforts by the ministry are guided by the level of environmental risk the activity poses. Ministry compliance staff were on site in late 2015 and there were no significant compliance issues identified.”

Follow-up questions were not returned.

And in a brief conversation with The News, Cooper reiterated that she wouldn’t be dumping any more milk down the drain, but said no other plans were in the works.

“I am sure nothing will happen again,” she said.