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Kelowna group opposes packinghouse effluent discharge permit

Sandher Fruit Packers face wrath of Ellison farming community

Alexandra Wright feels the weight of an uphill battle she has engaged in.

With her neighbour down Old Vernon Road from her Sweet Cherry Stables farm property, Sandher Fruit Packers, having submitted a new application for discharge of effluent from its packinghouse, she feels a sense of being powerless to speak up against it, to convince the Ministry of Environment and Interior Health, permit approval agencies, to step up on behalf of the surrounding Ellison rural community.

That frustration was evident at a town hall forum organized by Wright inside her equestrian riding arena attended by about 80 residents last Tuesday (March 19).

Wright took the microphone inside the cavernous barn and spoke about the potential negative impact of the Sandher Fruit Packers permit application 111625, which seeks permission to continue discharging effluent from its facility into the onsite storm system.

She said the discharged effluent runoff from flows into an adjacent ditch and onto arable farmland, and also seeps over lands with pristine aquifers, and how the effluent will contain elements of known carcinogens and hormone disrupters raising the spectre of potential health risks.

She talked about not only protecting the environmental integrity of their farms but also safeguarding the health of the public who consume the packinghouse produce and drink the water daily.

On hand to hear her speak were Regional District of Central Okanagan board vice-chair Kevin Kraft, east area electoral director, and BC Conservative Party candidate Tara Armstrong.

Containment of the effluent discharge from an Ellison packinghouse that distributes apples and cherries for commercial sale has become a disputed issue with its farming community neighbours. (File photo)

In an interview with Black Press Media the morning after the forum, Wright acknowledged standing up as a voice in support of an increasingly marginalized farming community is no small challenge and not one she was looking to take up.

“Everybody is busy. Somebody has to do something about this but not everybody has the time or energy to get people together,” she said.

“But this has to be done for something as important as letting people change the dynamic of our community in this way. This is not right.”

Wright has launched a petition which as of Friday, March 22, had gathered more than 1,200 signatures opposing an application that would allow the packinghouse to continue to discharge effluent produced from the fruit washing and packing process.

The petition in turn has drawn wide local media interest to the issue and community she is advocating.

At the forum, Wright cited how toxic elements of that wastewater discharge pose a potential threat to Ellison farmland, aquifer and stream waterways, extending to Mill Creek and Simpson Pond and ultimately to the Kelowna Spring Golf Course.

There was some haste as the deadline for submitting opposition to the permit application had been March 21, which has since been extended to April 4.

She said other questionable land uses in Ellison in the recent past have not changed despite complaints to the Ministry of Environment and Regional District of Central Okanagan, but she doesn’t want the Sandher Fruit Packers permit application to follow the same fate.

“This latest one has resonated with many of us because it reflects again how completely ignored and disregarded we are in these decisions and the effect on us as farmers,” she said.

“Our vote doesn’t carry the same sway as the City of Kelowna representation, and the RDCO seems like we are too small a population group to have to cater to our needs.”

But Wright describes Ellison as “such a cool community” when they arrived here 10 years ago from Alberta, saying the unique vibe made them feel like they had “travelled back in time.”

“Everybody always talks about their concerns about agricultural property, how farming is important and all that…but in the end, corporate business interests seem to always be favoured,” she said.

While the petition might be symbolic of drawing a line in the sand for her and her farming neighbours, she is prepared to go one step further, encouraging her petition supporters to contact grocers such as Save-On-Foods, Costco and Real Canadian Superstore and ask them to stop purchasing produce from a commercial entity that is polluting and flooding local farms and waterways.

Contacted by Black Press Media, the regional district says it shares community concerns regarding the discharge permit application for the packinghouse, located at 3231 Old Vernon Rd.

“The improper disposal of wastewater on the property falls under the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy’s jurisdiction and they have been investigating the issue,” said an email statement response from Haley Oliver, communications manager/corporate services for the RDOC.

Oliver said further that RDCO bylaw staff have visited the packinghouse site and compiled and submitted resident complaints to the provincial RAAP (Report All Poachers and Polluters Complaint Service)

RDCO development services have also submitted a letter to the ministry in response to the Environmental Protection Notice outlining several concerns including repeated system failures, unauthorized discharge and odour complaints, and the impact on riparian areas and fish-bearing watercourses.

“In consideration of these concerns, the RDCO strongly recommends that the permit applications undergo rigorous scrutiny that prioritizes environmental protection and community well-being.”

While many of those concerns were voiced by impacted area residents at the town hall forum, Wright said the question remains what will be done about it.

From her perspective, land use violations have been noted by regulatory agencies at other Ellison farm locations in recent years. Sometimes a fine is issued but more often nothing seems to change.

“It is ridiculous the effluent discharge violations that have been going on for the last three years and nothing has been done about it…where is the incentive to follow the rules?” she asks.

Black Press Media reached out to Sandher Fruit Packers with a number of specific questions surrounding its current application permit process but has yet to receive a reply.

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Barry Gerding

About the Author: Barry Gerding

Senior regional reporter for Black Press Media in the Okanagan. I have been a journalist in the B.C. community newspaper field for 37 years...
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