A real barn burner

When an Abbotsford barn burned to the ground last year, there were concerns the pesticides stored inside may have tainted a nearby city water supply well. Water testing alleviated those concerns. Nevertheless, the city's mayor George Peary was so worried about the incident that he encouraged the province to review the inspection process used to ensure the safe storage of pesticides. But it's unclear whether the government ever acted on his recommendation.

The advice was included in a letter sent to Environment Minister Barry Penner on November 16, 2009 and exclusively obtained by Public Eye via a freedom of information request.

In it, Mr. Peary advised the minister the fire - which took place six months earlier - "occurred within 250m of one of the City of Abbotsford's water supply wells and the property also includes an irrigation well close to the barn."

The blaze completely destroyed containers storing "significant quantities of pesticides and herbicides," with the water used to hose down the blaze spreading a "noticeable door of pesticides."

To protect Abbotsford residents, the city's well was closed for two weeks while water samples were analyzed.

The results were then forwarded to the Fraser Health Authority, which gave the city "permission to restart the use of the well and requested that further water sampling be carried out in August."

Those test results came back negative. Nevertheless, Mr. Perry asked the environment minister to review the inspection process used to ensure pesticides are being safely stored in compliance with the Integrated Pest Management Act.

In response, the environment minister wrote his regional staff "consider agriculture pesticide storage to be an important issue in the Fraser Valley and have undertaken farm inspections with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency to ensure legislative compliance."

A ministry spokesperson didn't give us a straighter answer when we asked whether the government had conducted Mr. Perry's suggested review.

The mayor also recommended there should stricter rules for pesticides stored in "groundwater protection zones" - something the minister stated would be given "consideration as a potential legislative change."

But West Coast Environment Law Society staff counsel Andrew Gage pointed out the Workers Compensation Act already requires pesticide storage facilities to be built "where surface runoff water used to fight a pesticide fire will not contaminate a surface water body or well." It also requires those facilities to "wherever possible, use fire-resistant materials."

As a result, to Mr. Gage's mind, the bigger issue here seems to be one of enforcing existing pesticide storage regulations rather than changing them.

"In recent years we've seen a virtual collapse of environmental enforcement, and there has never been a successful prosecution under BC's Integrated Pest Management Act," he explained. "The Ministry of Environment and Worksafe BC need to have resources and the mandate to enforce the laws that already exist."

The following is a complete copy of the aforementioned correspondence.

Correspondence between George Peary and Barry Penner

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