Stopping the Nicola Valley from becoming B.C.’s toilet
(Published in the Georgia Straight on June 29th, 2015)
It came as quite a shock to the First Nations of the Nicola Valley. Big-city sewer sludge had been dumped in their traditional, ancestral lands for over a decade. The news was a blow. It was also a catalyst. For the past eight months or so, the five bands from the valley, together with the community group calling itself Friends of the Nicola Valley, have worked hard to stop further importing of these so-called “biosolids” into the Nicola region. As Chief Aaron Sam and others have stressed many times, there was absolutely no consultation from either the sludge industry or the government about this practice.
This was a message I had already heard at several meetings where elders of the area explained how deeply their people rely on the forests and rivers for their foods and medicines. Imagine within these forests, on this same earth where their ancestors have hunted and harvested for centuries and lived and died and were buried, here they have been spreading sewage—it is disrespectful and disgusting. The industry is only obliged to put up signs stating that nothing should be eaten from the forest for a stipulated number of months or years. As one elder pointed out to me with a wry smile, “I’m not exactly sure how many of the deer and other animals can read a sign posted that high up!” He, like many here, is very worried about how this goulash of toxins will enter the food chain. Many locals have remarked on the poor health of some of the animals recently, especially in the areas where they have found out dumping has been going on for years.
So what’s all the fuss? Doesn’t the government say it is okay? Well, the government seems to have a pretty short memory. There is a reason why we built all those water treatment plants that produce the sludge. Years ago, people were getting sick from the toxic environment they lived in. We got really good at removing toxins from the water system and putting it aside. Then here we are today spreading that same by-product of the water purifying process back into our environment—the very stuff we tried so hard to get rid of!
The people here in the valley have come to recognize that there are two main reasons we should not put our health, nor the health of the environment, in the government’s hands: because of recent scientific research, and because of the government’s track record.
So what is recent science telling us about this land application of sewer sludge?
The dangers fall into a number of categories, including: hormones, prion contamination, toxin contamination (heavy metals and toxic organic chemicals), and so-called emerging substances of concern (microbial, organic, and inorganic contaminants, pharmaceuticals and personal care products, amongst a number of ESOCs). They are all worrying and all demand far more study.
It seems that a lot of people believe that we can trust the government and its laws and guidelines to safeguard our health and that of our children. However, government legislation is always playing a catch-up game—tobacco, thalidomide, asbestos...all government approved until science caught up—and now we are paying the price for these (and many more) government errors. What the people of the Nicola Valley are advocating is a precautionary principle towards acts that may endanger health and or the environment. What our provincial and federal governments have neglected to take into consideration is that they have agreed to act in environmental issues (like the one we are facing) with the precautionary principle in mind. The precautionary principle denotes a duty to prevent harm, when it is within their power to do so, even when all the evidence is not in. This principle has been codified in several international treaties to which Canada is a signatory.
It is time to reconsider this dubious practice of land application of biosolids. There are alternatives (see recent clean incineration methods in Denmark and Germany that actually return energy to the grid) that may have an initial cost for the government to implement, but future medical costs and environmental clean-up costs will surely amount to much more in the long-term. It is important to note that the government is relying on legislation and science that is outdated. The process as it now stands is almost wholly self-regulated by the sludge industry itself. With the environment and our health at risk, this is just not sufficient.
Farmers and ranchers in the Nicola Valley have been offered sewer sludge too. A few of them have used it for years, swayed by the offer of free fertilizer, and seduced by glossy pictures of green hay fields. “Biosolids” do after all contain things plants like—nitrogen and phosphorus being the main two. But anyone who has read a little deeper would not be swayed by pretty pictures showing how green and high the hay grows after an initial application. The problem with sewer sludge is obviously not the few beneficial nutrients—it is all the other toxins that come with the package. It is rather like going to get a shot for measles only to find out later that it was a dirty needle—surprise—you did safeguard against measles but you now have hepatitis, HIV, and cholera. Country after country are finding the risks too great to continue to allow land application of biosolids. We urge Canada to follow their precautionary lead.
Many in the area would like to see the Nicola Valley promote itself as a fecal-free zone (except animal manures of course). We would like to convert the few “users” to see that marketing the valley as completely “biosolid free” would be a boon to farmers in this area. The First Nations’ moratorium is really a marketing gift. Where else in B.C. (or Canada?) can you be sure your food came from a sewage-free farm? Our unified group will keep pressuring the government to get on the right side of history and join the enlightened countries that believe in protecting their farmers, their soils, their citizens, and their environments.
The First Nations and the Friends of the Nicola Valley have been keeping two blockades going along Highway 8 now for 100 days and nights. They are unified in their resolve that no more sewer sludge will enter this beautiful valley. Time and again I hear from both Natives and non-Natives how wonderful this experience has been in terms of bringing together these two cultures. Both sides I think have been pleasantly surprised by the depth of the love for the land that they all share in common. Those blockade fires at night have been a wonderful scene of drumming, songs, stories, prayers, and laughter—and many, many friendships have been made. Over the past months we have collected thousands of signatures for our petition calling for an end to this practice.
The blockades are there both to protect and to educate. Most travellers from other areas of B.C. have no idea that the Nicola Valley is being used as a toilet for big-city sewage. Most are horrified. Many apologize in embarrassment. The next time you flush, give pause to the waters and lands you may be jeopardizing, and help us push this government to seek out more sustainable approaches to dealing with our waste.