Protesters occupying Premier Christy Clark's constituency office say they are ready to engage in mediated talks with government, but first they want a moratorium on the disposal of biosolids, or sewage sludge, on land in the Merritt area.
"We're open to solutions from the province, and of course, we'd bring our own proposals forward, but the moratorium would have to stay in place until we have something that works for everyone," Aaron Sam, Chief of the Lower Nicola Band, said Thursday in a phone interview from Ms. Clark's office.
Chief Sam said about 20 other protesters, both First Nation and non-aboriginal, began occupying the riding office in West Kelowna on Wednesday to focus attention on a controversial biosolids project outside Merritt in the Nicola Valley.
BioCentral, a B.C. company based in Aggasiz, has a contract to compost and dispose of biosolids from municipal sewage plants in the Okanagan Valley. The material is to be spread just outside Merritt on a 320-acre parcel of land known as Dry Lake. Opponents of the plan say the site is too near streams, drinking water wells and housing developments.
Last month, residents blocked Highway 8 to stop the company from delivering more biosolids to the composting site. And this week, they extended the protest to Ms. Clark's office.
"We're prepared to stay," Chief Sam said of the group at the office, who are being watched by RCMP and staff from the Sergeant-At-Arms office in the B.C. legislature.
Chief Sam said talks with government officials that went until late Wednesday night got nowhere.
BioCentral issued a statement saying it has stopped hauling biosolids to the Merritt compost site until a solution is found.
"BioCentral is aware of the peaceful protest under way on Hwy 8 by concerned citizens and members of local First Nations. We respect their right to protest and will work with our municipal partners to ensure that trucks do not travel to [the] site," the statement says. "However the company is concerned about the length of this protest and potential impact long term to their business."
The company also states the disposal of biosolids by recycling them on land is a common and environmentally beneficial practice used across Canada.
But Georgia Clement, a spokesperson for the Friends of Nicola Valley in Merritt, said bio-waste from sewage plants is a danger to the environment and possibly to humans because it contains heavy metals and pathogens.
"You can read the science on this stuff," she said. "No matter how long they treat it, it still poses a risk."
Ms. Clement said residents were shocked when BioCentral started dumping biosolids at the site.
"This compost pile they have, if you drive by it, your eyes and nose will start watering," Ms. Clement said. "They have mountains of it there." She said the plan is to dispose of thousands of tonnes of sludge at the land site.
"A lot of us are incensed this could happen," she said.
The provincial government states in a fact sheet that biosolids are treated "to be beneficially and safely used in the environment" and are regulated as organic matter. The government states that "concerns" with the Merritt disposal site have been raised, and the proponent has been ordered to provide additional information "regarding setbacks from surface water and slope, as well as an evaluation of groundwater depth, drinking water and habitat protection."
A Ministry of Environment spokesman said in an e-mail on Thursday the government is waiting for a revised plan from the company.