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'They've destroyed the land': Illegal dumping increasing on B.C. farmland

It’s against the law to dump construction material on land reserved for farming but its increasingly being used as a cheaper alternative to authorized sites, which can charge more than $1,000 a load.
Robert Spiller said his quiet, rural neighbourhood in the Hatzic Valley has been overrun by dump trucks bringing in loads of excavated soil and construction materials from job sites across the region. JASON PAYNE, PNG

VANCOUVER — A rural valley outside Mission has become a dump site for excavated soil and construction waste, with the owners of 14 properties issued stop-work orders over the past year for illegally accepting fill.

In one case, the owner of a trucking company purchased a blueberry field and dumped hundreds of loads of material containing rebar, concrete and plastic on the land. In June, and again in August, B.C.’s Agricultural Land Commission issued a stop-work order on the property against the owner of Sran Trucking, an Abbotsford-based trucking company, after an inspector observed dump trucks at the site.

In the months since then, neighbours say the activity hasn’t stopped.

“They’ve destroyed the land,” said Robert Spiller, who has lived in the Hatzic Valley for 35 years. “You can’t do anything with it now.”

B.C. law forbids the dumping of construction material on land reserved for farming. Unless approved by the land commission, the rocky, low-quality dirt that is excavated from construction sites across the region must be taken to an authorized facility.

Since February of last year, the land commission has issued stop-work orders for 13 additional properties on, or near, Stave Lake Road, noting in one of the orders that Sran Trucking has been “associated with the depositing of fill on other properties in the vicinity … without authorization.”

Postmedia made various attempts to reach Sran Trucking to comment on this story, but was unable to interview anyone associated with the company.

Those familiar with the issue of illegal dumping in the Fraser Valley said it is a growing problem that is detrimental to neighbourhoods, destroys farmland and pollutes the environment. As the B.C. government pushes housing and development across Metro Vancouver, a complex regulatory framework and inadequate penalties fail to prevent farmland from being used as a cheaper alternative to authorized sites, which can charge more than $1,000 a load.

“I think, unfortunately, the message that is being sent — through not a lot of enforcement and long delays — is that the Fraser Valley is open for this activity,” said Jason Lum, chair of the Fraser Valley Regional District board of directors and a Chilliwack city councillor.

Lum said illegal dumping is a top issue for the regional district, with land commission files related to fill placement up 300 per cent across the region over the last several years. The board has asked the provincial government and land commission for a better regulatory process and more enforcement to quickly shut down bad actors.

“No one should assume we’re going to roll over and allow this,” he said.

Lum said the land commission is responsible for activities on farmland, but with six or seven enforcement officers for the entire province and about half based outside Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, it isn’t enough to stop people from “essentially ruining farmland.”

In the case of Sran Trucking, property records show owner Lakhvir Sran purchased the blueberry farm for $1 million in April.

Shortly after, Spiller said he began to notice dump trucks loaded with waste driving past his house. At first, the material was piled at the front of the site, but eventually the owners used an excavator and bulldozer to construct a road to the back of the property and began dumping loads next to a waterway and dike.

“If they don’t care about the farmland, the Department of Fisheries should be concerned about the fish,” said Spiller.

As he spoke to Postmedia on Thursday, several blue herons alighted on the top of the piles and began poking around in the rocks and plastic. The road appeared to cut through a patch of old blueberry plants and a marshy area with tall, yellow grass and pools of surface water.

“To buy a piece of property and destroy it,” Spiller said, shaking his head, “that’s what gets to me.”

According to the stop-work order, Lakhvir Sran told an Agricultural Land Commission inspector that he brought in 250 loads of material from an excavation site in Maple Ridge. At the June visit, the inspector noted rebar, concrete and plastic in the piles and informed him that all “fill-related activity” had to stop.

During a follow-up visit in July, she observed that more construction material had been dumped at the site despite the stop-work order. Her report noted changes had been made to the property’s ownership structure, with trucking company director Lakhvir Sran removed as the director of the numbered company that owned the farmland, and Ajmer Singh Sran added.

In an email, the land commission’s director of operations, Avtar Sundher, said the commission will be “contemplating further enforcement action” in the case, which could include an administrative penalty order. The land commission is also drafting a remediation order, which, if authorized, would require the removal of the fill.

Lum said consequences should be more immediate for those who contravene provincial law. In at least one case he has observed, the land was never restored to agricultural use. After it was sold, it was successfully excluded from the farmland reserve and turned into industrial land.

Former Abbotsford city councillor Lynn Perrin said fines and penalties should be higher. The current system gives companies an economic incentive to use an unauthorized site, particularly if penalties aren’t significant.

The land commission typically assesses stop-work orders and penalties against property owners who accept fill. But the situation is often complex, with construction companies, trucking companies and waste management companies sometimes playing a role as well.

“If you’re involved in this, you need to know that you’re a participant in doing irreparable damage to food-producing land in the Fraser Valley,” said Lum. “I’d be asking questions if I was a site in Metro Vancouver and I was getting a good deal on disposal of soil.”

The Hatzic Valley is an out-of-the-way place on the north side of the Fraser River behind Hatzic Lake. Bordered by mountains, the prairie runs southward to the Fraser River and is flat and bright, with small farms dotting green and yellow pastures. In winter, the low-lying area is often soggy, making farming difficult.

The owner of a blueberry farm near the Sran property said he accepted clean topsoil to prevent his fields from flooding.

Nachhatter Jhulley said he has pleaded with the provincial and regional governments to improve drainage in the Hatzic Valley by clearing ditches, but nothing has been done. As a result, his bushes have struggled to produce a crop. Before he received a stop-work order from the land commission, he accepted fill to raise low spots and construct a road for better access to his fields.

The farmer said the fill did not come from Sran Trucking, although property records show he sold Sran its property on Stave Lake Road last year. He would not name the company that supplied fill to his farm, but said he received it free. The stop-work orders for the properties in the area do not contain information on who supplied the fill.

“My blueberries are underwater,” said Jhulley. “I’m the farmer. I want to make it grow.”