B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner has been asked to investigate the provincial government for allegedly withholding vital health information about a tainted drinking-water aquifer in the North Okanagan.
In a letter Wednesday to Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) at the University of Victoria complains the government acted improperly when it refused to promptly disclose documents concerning the pollution of the Hullcar aquifer, near Armstrong.
ELC legal director Calvin Sandborn said the government breached the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act by delaying public access to authorizations that allowed a farm to continue spreading manure on land over the aquifer, and by refusing to release soil test results.
"I think this is a key issue," said Mr. Sandborn. "They've got these reports. They've been looking at the soil and the water … Well, why aren't they letting the public have those reports?"
Mr. Sandborn said that, in making inquiries for concerned residents about the pollution of the aquifer, law student Rebecca Kantwerg requested government permits that authorized the farmer to continue spreading effluent on land over the aquifer.
On behalf of the Save the Hullcar Aquifer Team, which represents some of the 150 people who rely on the aquifer for drinking water, Ms. Kantwerg also sought access to soil tests taken at the field where the farm sprayed effluent.
"Unfortunately, instead of recognizing the public interest in disclosure of this health-related information – and proactively and promptly disclosing it as required by the act – government delayed disclosing some of this information, and failed to disclose other information," states the ELC in its complaint.
"Specifically, government delayed disclosing the [Ministry of Environment] authorizations for the application of effluent … and failed to disclose other critical information," the letter states.
In an e-mail, MoE spokesman David Karn said the government had provided information as required and it had done so through the FOI process.
"Ministry staff released information related to the HS Jansen Dairy Farm in a timely manner through the BC Government Freedom of Information process, due to the nature of the information requested," stated the e-mail.
Mr. Sandborn said the government eventually did release some of the information sought, but not all, and Ms. Kantwerg was initially told access fees of up to $600 could be charged.
"To date, government has not provided us with the requested soil tests taken at the field where the [farmer] sprayed effluent, despite their obligation to proactively provide such public information related to a public health risk," the letter states.
Because of high nitrate levels, the Steele Springs Waterworks District, which draws from the Hullcar aquifer, has been under a water-quality warning issued by Interior Health since March, 2014.
Mr. Sandborn said Section 25 of the FOI act requires the government to promptly and pro-actively release information concerning a significant risk to public health.
"An MoE compliance order to stop adding nitrogen-laden manure effluent above a nitrate-tainted drinking water supply – and subsequent MoE authorizations to allow the further application of such effluent – are clearly about a risk of significant harm to public health," states the ELC letter. "Nothing is more essential to public health than safe drinking water … Such evidence should be public – it should definitely not be concealed, delayed or withheld subject to payment of unreasonable fees."
The letter asks the Privacy Commissioner to "investigate and report on the apparent breach" of the act.
"The documents sought relate to manure effluent applications, which have likely contributed to rising and unsafe levels of nitrate in the local drinking supply," the letter states. "This is both a threat to the environment and to the health of the public."
On Monday, the ELC wrote to Interior Health on behalf of area residents, asking health officials to "order a complete and permanent moratorium on the application of liquid manure effluent on a 210-acre field owned by HS Jansen and Sons Farm Ltd."
Interior Health officials said Tuesday it is examining the request.