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Chilliwack community up in arms over hazardous-waste plant

When the City of Chilliwack published a notice of a public hearing into a rezoning proposal on Cannor Road, it failed to mention some key things.

Instead of stating the site was going to be used for the treatment of hazardous waste, the city said it was going "to facilitate the construction of a waste recycling and transfer facility."

For all you could tell by that description, the plant was going to handle garden waste and old bottles – not mercury and toxic sludge.

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And the location map failed to show one important element – namely that the Fraser River is just 150 metres away.

Now, those oversights may land the city in court and lead to what a lot of people have been calling for – public hearings at which the public actually gets to have a say.

In the first hearings, only a few people showed up, says Glen Thompson of Friends of the Chilliwack River Valley, because nobody really knew what was at stake. Now, a coalition of groups is hoping a legal challenge will stop the rezoning and give people another chance to be heard.

In a notice of application filed with the Supreme Court of B.C. last week, the opponents challenge the zoning bylaw that cleared the way for Aevitas Inc. to build a hazardous-waste plant on the banks of the Fraser River.

The notice claims the bylaw is illegal because the city "failed to adequately describe the purpose of the proposed bylaw, or … failed to disclose the contents of key documents relating to the proposal sufficiently in advance of the public hearing."

Or, as Mr. Thompson puts it: "We're saying they didn't describe the property properly … It didn't show the Fraser River. It didn't show PCPs, it didn't mention mercury, it didn't mention the word hazardous … So what would clue you in?"

When those who did get clued in showed up at the public hearing, they asked for a delay in the process so people could become better informed. Council declined.

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In a statement on its website, the city explains: "Council was satisfied with the land use decision and passed second and third reading, citing the comprehensive plans submitted, and the safeguards which will be put in place."

Mr. Thompson, however, thinks council rushed things.

He said if the legal challenge is successful it would force city council to go through the process again: "It would basically knock everything back to the second stage, which would be the public hearing."

Mr. Thompson said since council approved the rezoning, the hazardous plant has turned into a big issue in Chilliwack, and he's convinced the majority of people don't want the project now that they know what it is.

"We hope if it does go back to public hearing a second time that we'll be able to defeat it," he said.

A second hearing would not only give members of the public a chance to express their views, but it would allow Byron Day, the President of Aevitas to clear up a question about the company's safety record.

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According to a report in the Chilliwack Progress, when Mr. Day appeared before council, he made this statement: "In 20 years, we've never had an incident."

He couldn't be reached for comment over the weekend, but he likely wouldn't make that claim today. An Aevitas plant in Cornwall had a fire last month. It was a minor blaze.

But the one that another company, Custom Environmental Services, had at its facility in Edmonton in 2005 was not.

"A witches' brew explodes: Series of blasts at toxic-waste handling facility sends black clouds over city," was how the Edmonton Journal described it at the time.

If a fire like that happened on the banks of the Fraser, all the water and chemical retardants used to suppress the flames would go straight into the river, along with toxic runoff from whatever was in the plant. No wonder the public wants to take a second look at this plan.

Editors' note: A version of this column published online and in print on Monday incorrectly said that Aevitas Inc. had undergone a major fire at its Custom Environmental Services plant in Edmonton in 2005. In fact, Aevitas did not acquire Custom Environmental Services until 2011. This version has been corrected.

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