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A farmer spreads manure on a field in the Township of Spallumcheen, North Okanagan. Local residents are concerned the spreading of manure is contaminating the local aquifer.

Al Price

The provincial government has finally begun to move on concerns about a polluted aquifer in the North Okanagan near the town of Armstrong.

But it is not moving fast enough to satisfy those who rely on the Hullcar Aquifer for their drinking water. And the record shows that the province failed to take action, perhaps in the process putting people's health at risk.

"The response by the provincial government, the lack of response, is just mind boggling," says Kukpi7 Wayne Christian, Chief of the Splatsin, which is part of the Shuswap Nation. Mr. Christian said he is joining forces with a group called the Save Hullcar Aquifer Team (SHAT), which represents about 150 local residents and has been raising concerns for years about high nitrate levels in the drinking water supply.

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He shares the group's worries and wants more done to ensure Hullcar Aquifer is safe.

Recently, SHAT wrote to the government and to Interior Health, the regional health authority, saying people fear their drinking water source has been polluted by a dairy farm that, with provincial approvals, has been spreading millions of gallons of liquid manure on land above the aquifer.

"How long have they been raising the alarm and nobody is paying attention to them? It's bizarre. I just don't get it," said Mr. Christian, whose band has two reserves that get water from the aquifer. "We need to know [if the water is safe] . . . because we have a number of young families, pregnant women and elders serviced by those wells."

The Steele Springs Waterworks District, which draws from the Hullcar Aquifer, has been under a drinking water advisory for the past two years because of high nitrate levels. So the government has known at least that long.

Al Price, co-chair of SHAT, went public with his concerns recently, releasing a letter in which he called on Interior Health to issue an order stopping the dairy farmer from spreading any more manure. That seemed to get things going.

Late last week, he got an e-mail from Ivor Norlin, an official with Interior Health, assuring him the agency "is taking these concerns and the call for direct action (i.e. an Order to stop the applications) very seriously."

But Mr. Norlin also expressed concerns about the lack of action so far.

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"On a personal note, I am very frustrated. As you know, nitrates have been a concern in this area for many years," he wrote.

A year ago, Greg Tegart, (now retired, but then a regional manager with the Ministry of Agriculture) wrote an e-mail to Mr. Price, to Interior Health and to other government officials, to summarize a meeting they had and promising action on the tainted aquifer problem.

The note in March, 2015, committed the government to sharing test results from soil samples taken on the farm, to undertake a risk assessment of the aquifer, to look into establishing a deep soil monitoring system, and to communicate with all the interested parties at least monthly on the issue.

"That was the last most of us ever heard," Mr. Price says.

And he was not the only one left hanging. Last September, six months after Mr. Tegart had promised the government would keep everyone in the loop about the action plan, Robert Birtles, a water specialist with Interior Health, wrote to Mr. Price to ask if he knew what was going on.

"I haven't heard further the possibility of study of the Hullcar Aquifer. Have you heard from Min. of Agriculture on the continued committee work? I've heard nothing," wrote Mr. Birtles.

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It appears Interior Health officials are proceeding with their own study. And the province has shown renewed interest, with a senior Ministry of Agriculture official recently visiting Mr. Price and inviting him to another meeting to discuss the aquifer problem.

But a year after the government first promised action, the people who drink from the Hullcar Aquifer are still afraid of the water.

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