Metro Vancouver cities target illegal fill dumping on farmland

Illegal soil dumping degrades farmland but politicians agree there are too few controls in place to stop it

Metro Vancouver cities are vowing to take coordinated action to stop the dumping of illegal fill on farmland, which degrades it and may contaminate it with demolition debris or invasive species like fire ants.

Some cities in the region have controls on soil excavated and deposited within their boundaries, but there’s no good system to track movements of fill that cross civic boundaries.

Compacted soil excavated from urban construction sites gets trucked – sometimes surreptitiously – out to agricultural areas where farmland owners are paid handsomely to accept fill loads.

Politicians fear that, if left unchecked, the practice will render vast swaths of farmland unproductive because of the temptation of short-term gain. Degraded farmland may become truck parking lots and poor soil can ultimately be an argument to allow development.

“We need a unified stand,” Richmond Coun. Harold Steves told the Metro Vancouver board May 15. “Lots of land owners are quite happy to take [money] from truckers who want to get rid of the soil and do it in the dark of night or weekends.”

Land owners get paid $100 to $200 per truckload, which can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars – much more than the maximum fines if caught, according to a Metro report.

For truckers, $200 a load is a lot cheaper than $3,240 in tipping fees at the Vancouver Landfill for a 30-tonne truck.

And the report says there are no measures in place to control the quality of fill being dumped.

The six Metro cities with 95 per cent of the region’s farmland – Langley Township, Delta, Surrey, Richmond, Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge – require soil deposition permits for placing fill on farmland and have stepped up enforcement, but it’s difficult for them to police against excessive dumping or undeclared loads coming from elsewhere in the region.

Meanwhile, most other municipalities either have no regulations on what developers can do with soil from demolition or excavation sites, or else only regulate fill dumped locally.

They’re expected to add new provisions forcing developers to declare where soil is coming from and where it’s going as part of construction and demolition permitting.

Metro Vancouver is to launch a web-based registry as a two-year trial to pull together the information across civic boundaries and help track where the fill goes from specified construction sites.

Metro expects the problem of illegal fill dumping to worsen as the region’s population grows and more older homes are demolished to make way for new developments.

The estimated cost of the Metro pilot project is $80,000.

Some mayors, including Burnaby’s Derek Corrigan and North Vancouver City’s Darrell Mussatto, say the province should address the problem because it has underfunded the Agricultural Land Commission.

The agency theoretically charged with preventing illegal dumping on ALR farmland has just three enforcement officers for the entire province.

Mussatto and Corrigan say it amounts to cost downloading if cities or the region shoulder more costs of farmland protection.

“I don’t think we should kid ourselves in thinking the province is going to step in and do the job for us,” Steves responded.

Langley Township Coun. Charlie Fox said municipalities need to avoid downloading but agreed the ALC is incapable of policing the problem.

“I live right in the middle of fill central down in south Langley,” Fox said. “On weekends and late at night the dump trucks run through 16th Avenue 24 hours a day.”

Fox said Metro should invite the Fraser Valley Regional District and member cities such as Abbotsford and Chilliwack to participate in any new regulatory system that takes shape.

“This is a huge issue that actually goes right through and permeates the whole south and north of the Fraser Valley in that direction.”

Other ideas suggested at Metro to fight illegal fill dumping include providing affordable fill dumping sites, spot checking trucks, aerial surveys and whistleblowing by residents through Soil Watch surveillance programs.

Not all soil being trucked away is necessarily being dumped on land.

Corrigan said his city investigated a massive soil excavation at a Brentwood Town Centre and discovered most of the soil was being barged out and dumped in the ocean off Point Grey.

“It seem to me counterintuitive that that’s good for the environment to dump all that dirt off west Point Grey but apparently the Ministry of Environment says it is.”

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