Local Indigenous band pleased to see Ministry of Environment starting to hold Princeton-area compost facility accountable after investigation into operations - Penticton News

A rural Princeton organics processing facility that received thousands of pig carcasses in December has made some progress on fixing their operations that were found out of compliance through a Ministry of Environment investigation – something the local Indigenous band has been pushing for.

Net Zero Waste Eastgate (NZWE) is an industrial composting facility approximately 50 kilometres southwest of Princeton, adjacent to the Similkameen River.

In December, locals spotted huge piles of dead hogs at the facility, which were brought in to compost after the devastating floods killed thousands of livestock animals in the Fraser Valley in November 2021.

The Upper Similkameen Indian Band raised environmental concerns, telling Castanet at the time they were concerned after witnessing the animals stored improperly on site.

The owner of Net Zero Waste, Mateo Ocejo, disputed the USIB claims, arguing the facility was in full compliance with the regulation and rules.

On Dec. 21, 2021, Ministry of Environment protection officers conducted an onsite inspection of the facility after a report was filed to verify compliance with organic matter recycling regulations.

A resulting warning letter was issued to the facility, dated Jan. 18, 2022, which includes results from the inspection and outlines the concerns, including accepting materials beyond their capacity, pig carcasses “dumped” off the receiving pad and not properly addressing leachate that had been pumped into a drain pit on multiple occasions.

While not all non-compliance issues in the ministry’s reports were related to the pig processing, the matter of the composting operations not being correct was clear.

Ocejo refuted several claims in the Ministry report at the time, explaining they didn’t observe any pollution.

Further inspections took place this year with three site visits by environmental officers on Feb. 16, April 7 and April 8, with a warning letter issued afterwards to NZWE on May 24.

“Several aspects of the facility were identified as being in compliance but some were still out of compliance, with many non-compliances not directly related to pig composting,” the Ministry of Environment said in a statement to Castanet.

“The ministry has engaged the Town of Princeton and the Upper Similkameen Indian Band throughout the compliance assessment process, and will continue to do so with future actions.”

In a statement, USIB Chief Bonnie Jacobsen addressed the situation on behalf of the band. She said they were “disappointed with the disrespect shown to our land, water and people by the current operations of Net Zero Waste.”

Jacobsen said the USIB’s interest in the situation at Net Zero Waste specifically relates to their role as stewards of the Upper Similkameen Traditional Territory.

“We take our responsibility to care for our lands and waters very seriously – they’re a precious gift that future generations, and all living things, depend on. We will not let the Similkameen Valley become a dumping ground for harmful waste from the Lower Mainland, no matter what it’s called,” Jacobsen said.

As in the past with site visits, the officer noted untested compost was stored off the concrete pads and there were signs of discharging leachate into the environment.

Throughout the spring inspections, NZWE has relocated their piles and some leachate sources have been corrected.

“I had received this first warning letter and now they’ve come up with the second inspection three months later with the second warning letter, but it’s far better. Some issues are there with some piles but they’ve acknowledged that due to winter conditions we couldn’t address everything,” Ocejo said, adding the site is currently undergoing construction to add in more concrete pads to address the infractions.

“We’re not perfect, we definitely are the first to admit that we, like any compost facility, have areas to work on. But I think we’re on the right path. They’ve told us that the [ministry] has said that, almost everything is now in compliance.”

Issues raised in the report include leachate from the compost piles not collected in the proper pond, improper storage areas that lacked roof or cover to avoid the collection of water and the need for all areas of the facility to have an appropriate leachate collection system.

“Directors and owners present at an April 8, 2022 site meeting committed to bringing the facility into full compliance as soon as possible,” the report stated.

“Some corrective measures have been taken regarding the storage and covering of materials on site. The ministry will remain engaged in this file until full compliance is achieved,” the ministry added.

“We welcome responsible and sustainable development,” Chief Jacobsen said. “We raised the alarm months ago that Net Zero Waste was clearly out of compliance. This warning letter confirms what we saw this winter – Net Zero has been releasing contaminated leachate into the environment, right next to the Similkameen River.”

A follow-up inspection will be completed to ensure corrective measures are taken at the facility and further assess compliance with the requirements in the Organic Matter Recycling Regulation (OMRR).

“We’re improving and we’re going to be doing everything we can to be fully compliant and good neighbours for the community,” Ocejo said. “We’re almost at full compliance and we would love to work with the USIB and to provide them benefits for our project, however, they’d like to see that.”

“We are happy the Ministry of Environment is taking action and starting to hold this operator accountable. USIB will keep taking care of our lands and waters, for all of us,” Jacobsen said.

“We will continue to work with B.C. and responsible industrial operators, to make sure past industrial messes are cleaned up, and any new ones are dealt with quickly and effectively. Permitting and authorizations of Composting Facilities operating under the OMRR regulations need to be addressed to prevent future environmental problems, and to support the responsible operators who are out there.”

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