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Trash crop: How illegal dumping is ruining B.C. farmland

Farms across B.C. are being used as illegal dumps by the construction industry, which is depositing poor-quality dirt and construction waste on land earmarked for agriculture, according to B.C.’s agriculture minister and the independent agency in charge of protecting provincial farmland.

They say the illegal dumping is occurring in farms across the province and has damaged prime, fertile land.

Construction contractors pay landowners to dump the waste and dirt — also called fill — on farmland to avoid higher fees at legal dumps.

“In most cases, it’s more financially feasible to farm fill than to farm vegetables. So it’s a huge problem,” said Agriculture Minister Lana Popham.

Popham said the issue has intensified, fuelled by the thriving construction industry.

“It gets worse every time we get into a successful building boom. There is not really a plan around where construction fill should go and so one of the easiest places to put it is farmland.”

Popham’s ministry recently concluded a public consultation about the revitalization of the Agricultural Land Reserve, which is land designated for farm use. She says fill was an issue.

A truck from the Agricultural Land Commission sits atop a huge pile of illegally placed fill on Vancouver Island. While illegal fill has been a problem in Metro Vancouver for years, the ALC and the minister of agriculture say the practise pops up whenever a building boom is in swing. (Agricultural Land Commission)

93 Metro Vancouver farms suspected

The Agriculture Land Commission (ALC), which oversees B.C.’s protected farmland, says it is investigating 93 properties on protected farmland in Metro Vancouver where it’s believed material has been illegally dumped.

“We’re aware there are significantly more illegal fill sites than that.” said Katarina Glavas, a soil expert with the ALC.

“I imagine it would be in the hundreds.”

Under provincial law, it is forbidden to dump construction material on land that is reserved for farming. Unless the material is approved by the ALC, construction companies dumping fill must take it to a transfer station to dispose of it.

Calls to five licensed waste facilities in Metro Vancouver revealed a dump truck load of mixed construction waste and fill could cost between $1,100 and $1,400 to legally dump.

Glavas said some landowners on protected farmland will accept the same load for only $200.

She says the average illegal fill site seen by the commission has about 40,000 cubic metres of material in it. That can earn a landowner over $1 million.

“There’s a substantial amount of money to be made in this,” Glavas said.

Lower than dirt

Breaching the dumping rules could result in a $100,000 penalty, but the Agriculture Land Commission’s CEO Kim Grout says there has only been one penalty levied by the Commission. Grout said that penalty was not for fill.

Glavas says the fill that’s dumped is largely rocky, low-quality dirt with “low or no fertility” excavated from places like Vancouver or Burnaby for a foundation or parking garage.

A close-up shot of construction debris dumped on a property on ALC land.(Agricultural Land Commission)

When this material is dumped on top of productive topsoil in cities like Richmond or Delta, it covers up some of the best growing land in B.C, Glavas said.

“You can basically not grow the same range of crops as you used to,” Glavas said. “You’re reducing the food capability of the land.”

When piles of rebar, concrete and asphalt are dumped, the surface of the farmland is physically covered, “the equivalent of paving it over,” Glavas said.

And because the practise is unregulated, the soil risks becoming contaminated by petroleum products and heavy metals, Glavas added.

Enforcement lacking

Arzeena Hamir is a farmer in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island, but previously managed a community farm in Richmond, B.C.

Hamir says during her time there, she knew of several farms taking in fill that was not inspected, and may have contained contaminated material.

She described seeing dump trucks coming and going from the farms at all hours of the day, constantly bringing it in. Some days, construction waste would appear in plain sight on the land.

“It became a very lucrative way of making money in a very short term on your land,” Hamir said.

“As soon as that fill is there, it’s very, very difficult to remove it and remediate that soil.”

She said the only people in a position to discover and report on the activity are neighbours which puts them in an “unfortunate position.”

Popham says part of the solution must be better enforcement from the ALC, which oversees the protected farmland.

Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham says changes to ALR rules could be coming in the fall.(Mike McArthur/CBC)

Glavas says the body has only four compliance officers province-wide to deal with possible infractions, and fill violations make up almost half of their cases.

“We often follow trucks and they come from all over the place.”

‘We need to protect the land itself’

Popham says this isn’t just a problem for Metro Vancouver. It’s happening in Kelowna, southern Vancouver Island and anywhere else construction is booming.

“We haven’t really figured out a strategy for what to do with [the material] but we’re going to have to,” she said.

Popham says changes to regulations may be announced later this year. Hamir says those changes can’t come soon enough.

“If British Columbians are serious about supporting local farms, having local food available on their store shelves and farmers’ markets, we need to protect the land itself from becoming contaminated and unfarmable.”

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