B.C. forbids dumping on farmland — so why is it so hard to stop it?

A complex regulatory system and long delays in enforcement are contributing to the growing problem of dumping waste on farmland.

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Casey Dehaas was sitting on his deck when he first noticed loaded dump trucks rumbling through his Abbotsford neighbourhood.

Concerned they weren’t following a truck route, the retired police officer tailed one a short distance to a rural property in the Matsqui Prairie. There, between blueberry fields and greenhouses, he saw the trucks dumping material on a large field. A sign at the entrance said “farm under construction.”

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Two years later, the property looks even less like a farm than it did then, he says. The site is covered in gravel and pathways that travel between large piles of a rocks.

“That’s not soil,” says Dehaas, who at one time built houses. “You can tell it’s fill just by looking at it.”

The property at the corner of Townshipline and Gladwin Road in Abbotsford is the site of the most “egregious” case of illegal dumping currently known to B.C.’s Agriculture Land Commission (ALC).

The rich topsoil has been stripped from an area the size of about 28 football fields. In its place is a layer of material more than a metre deep. The mixture contains construction waste, including chunks of concrete and bricks, as well as a “compost-like material containing plastic,” according to an ALC remediation order.

In one corner of the property, several shrubs grow in containers near a yellow sign that says “no farmers, no food.”

Casey Dehaas in front of field covered in rocks and other material.
Casey Dehaas, a retired police officer, was one of several neighbours who notified government officials when he noticed trucks dumping material on farmland in the Matsqui Prairie. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104420A

The property first came to the ALC’s attention in 2017 when an “extensive quantity” of fill was placed on the site by the property owners, who told inspectors they were constructing pads for a plant nursery.

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They were told to stop and apply to the commission for approval to add fill to farmland.

Over the six years that followed, the dumping continued, according to ALC documents. Pacific Mainland Contracting, a civil contracting company that conducts “gravel sales, mining and land development,” currently appears to operate from the site, with its website inviting customers to visit.

The Abbotsford property is one of dozens across B.C. where farmland has been ruined by illegal dumping. While provincial law lays out stiff penalties for those caught accepting material without approval from the land commission, officials first seek voluntary compliance through a series of escalating actions that sometimes take years to achieve results.

In the Hatzic Valley, a rural area east of Mission, the ALC has issued stop-work orders against the owners of 37 properties linked to illegal dumping. Despite that, a neighbour counted 30 loaded trucks lined up on the road into the valley one morning two weeks ago.

“I’m so incredibly frustrated,” B.C. Agriculture Minister Pam Alexis said recently. “When I see those double dump trucks on Lougheed Highway, my heart sinks.”

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Alexis said she’s made it her mission to stop illegal dumping on farmland, but she admits it’s a complex, “multi-ministry” problem. She’s asked her staff to investigate increasing penalties — something that was last done in 2019 — and to sort through some of the jurisdictional issues that make shutting down a dump site difficult.

Illegal dumping isn’t a new problem in B.C., but there’s evidence it’s a growing one. As governments push rapid housing development, it creates more excavated soil and rocks. Dump sites are limited — and costly. At the same time, efforts to divert organic material from landfills has led to changes in how waste is managed — in some cases, making it harder to track.

In the case of both materials — poor-quality fill and contaminated compost — companies must pay to dispose of it, creating a financial incentive to find a field in a quiet corner of the Fraser Valley and dump it.

‘Unsuspecting homeowners’ beware

Kathy Haslett compares illegal dumping in the Hatzic Valley with a game of “whack a mole.” From her home, she watches trucks go by “day in, day out,” often to different properties.

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Over the last 18 months, the ALC has issued stop-work orders on 37 properties in the quiet, rural area north of the Fraser River. The land commission has also started warning “unsuspecting homeowners” that trucking companies are knocking on doors offering free fill.

Accepting the material is illegal, said Avtar Sundher, the ALC’s director of operations, and the land commission “will likely require the homeowner to remove it and remediate the land and/or face administrative penalties.”

Robert Spiller in front of soil that's been dumped on farmland in Hatzic.
Robert Spiller said the Hatzic Valley has been overrun by dump trucks bringing in loads of excavated soil and construction materials from job sites across the region. In a photograph taken in March, he stands in front of a former blueberry field covered in fill. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

In one notable case, the owner of a trucking company, linked by the ALC to dumping on multiple properties in the area, purchased a blueberry farm for $1 million. Shortly after, he brought in 250 loads of material containing rebar, concrete and plastic from an excavation site in Maple Ridge, said an ALC report.

Twice, the land commission has issued a stop-work order against Lakhvir Sran and Sran Trucking. In March, eight months after the first order was issued, the ALC told Postmedia News that it was contemplating further enforcement action.

The ALC typically takes action against property owners who accept fill, not trucking companies or those responsible for generating the material. Tracing the the source of the material is complicated and outside the land commission’s mandate.

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“If you’re a landowner and someone is paying you to take fill, I’d be very, very concerned,” said Jason Lum, chairman of the Fraser Valley Regional District and a Chilliwack city councillor. “Because right now that’s the easiest place where enforcement can be pursued.”

Even so, the land commission is slow to assess penalties — and it seems to be falling behind on enforcement action.

According to the ALC’s most recent annual report, complaints to the compliance and enforcement department were up 33 per cent in the 2022-23 fiscal year compared with the year before. But enforcement actions, including penalties, remediation orders and stop-work orders, were down 11 per cent. File closure rates were also down 28 per cent, and the number of active files at year end was up 29 per cent to 776. The report attributed the high number of active files to staffing vacancies.

In 2019, the government increased penalties for illegal dumping to $1 million or six months in prison upon conviction in B.C. Supreme Court. The CEO of the land commission also has the power to assess an administrative penalty of $100,000 for a single contravention, with subsequent contraventions netting additional penalties.

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A search of the provincial database that tracks enforcement action shows only one penalty issued under the Agricultural Land Commission Act since 2018, when a Richmond golf course was assessed a $70,000 fine for placing unauthorized fill.

It’s unclear if other penalties have been issued and not added to the database. The CEO of the ALC, Kim Grout, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

As the ALC’s website notes, “the majority of observed contraventions are dealt with informally through compliance actions such as education, compliance notices, notices of contravention and direction letters to acquire voluntary compliance.”

That process can sometimes take years.

‘Contaminent-laded organic matter’

On hot days, the smell of garbage wafts across the Columbia Valley.

Residents of the rural valley near Cultus Lake began complaining to the ALC and the Environment Ministry in summer 2022 when they noticed trucks dumping waste on a farmer’s field.

But months after they first complained, the trucks continued to come, sometimes 20 a day, trailing bits of garbage and a horrible stench behind them.

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Resident Darcy Henderson described the government’s response as “stop, or I’ll stay stop again.”

“There’s no disincentive for companies to try to make a quick buck,” she said. “If there had been an officer stationed there, fining every truck $1,000 a load, do you think they would have continued dumping another load, let alone 100 loads?”

Darcy Henderson in Cultus Lake
Darcy Henderson said she’s grateful to the ALC for putting a stop to dumping on a field in the Columbia Valley, but the delays were frustrating. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG
Plastic bags among compost dumped on a farmer's field near Cultus Lake.
In file photos taken last winter, Henderson shows some of the plastic that blew off the piles of material at the site. Photo by Francis Georgian /PNG

As of March, almost two years after the trucks began rolling in, 14,400 tonnes of material remain on the field, according to an Environment Ministry report. The material is supposed to be removed by May 31, the second removal deadline set since the ALC issued a stop-work order against Fraser Valley Renewables, a waste management company, and the owner of the field, Bruce Vander Wyk, in October 2022.

Fraser Valley Renewables claimed it was trying to improve the soil on the field and was unaware the material wasn’t high-quality compost. They added drywall paper, some of which still had drywall attached to it, to test it as a “bulking agent,” a spokesman told Postmedia previously.

After neighbours complained, the waste was eventually tested and identified as mids fractions, a “contaminant-laden organic matter that requires additional screening” and traced back to Surrey Biofuel, a municipal facility that accepts green bin waste from more than 150,000 Surrey homes, as well as several other Metro Vancouver municipalities.

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Sundher, the ALC director of operations, told Postmedia top-grade compost can be applied to farmland in some cases. The commission doesn’t require farmers or companies to provide data on whether the compost adheres to regulations “up-front.”

Henderson said if neighbours hadn’t complained — numerous times, to different government authorities, including the ALC, the Environment Ministry, the regional district and the health authority — it’s unclear if the material would have been tested. When tested, it was found to be out-of-compliance with provincial environmental regulations and a stop-work order was issued, putting an end to the dumping. A remediation order followed.

In April, after issuing several warnings to Fraser Valley Renewables for continuing to allow waste to be introduced to the environment near Cultus Lake, the Environment Ministry informed the company that it would be moving forward with an administrative penalty.

The ALC will also assess an administrative penalty if the company doesn’t meet the May 31 deadline to remove the waste and remediate the land, said Sundher. The company and property owner have, so far, assured the land commission they will meet the deadline, he said.

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Piles of material in Columbia Valley near Cultus Lake
A few weeks before the deadline for its removal, 14,400 tonnes of material remain on the field in Columbia Valley, according to a Environment Ministry report. Residents are worried that it could harm the aquifer that supplies their drinking water, as well as nearby Cultus Lake. Photo by Jason Vasilash /sun
Drone photos of piles of waste near Cultus Lake
Photos of the piles of waste that remain in Columbia Valley taken in April by a neighbour with a drone. Photo by Jason Vasilash /sun

Postmedia reached out to Fraser Valley Renewables for an update on the remediation work, but was told to speak to Barry Penner, a lawyer and former B.C. environment minister, who is the company’s “legal representative” on the matter. Postmedia was unable to reach Penner for comment before deadline.

In February, Fraser Valley Renewables president Matthew Malkin spoke to Peachland council about a plan to build a new compost facility at the former Brenda Mine site near Peachland, according to an article in Castanet that identified him as one of the project leaders. Food waste collected in a new regional curbside collection program slated to start in 2025 will be turned into top-grade compost and natural gas, said the article.

In 2023, the Westbank First Nation partnered with Brenda Renewables and invested “several million dollars” in the project, expecting it to eventually return “tens of millions of dollars,” according to another article in Castanet.

Columbia Valley resident Henderson said green waste diversion from landfills is a noble goal, but when the material ends up on farmland, it looks like a “tabletop government exercise that they didn’t play out to the end.”

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‘There’s a lack of enforcement’

Several different government entities have a role to play in overseeing waste disposal in B.C., which seems to complicate and slow the response to dumping cases.

In Metro, the regional district has two primary contracts with compost facilities that handle green bin waste from five municipalities, said Metro general manager of solid waste services Paul Henderson. The rest of the region’s municipalities have their own contracts with various facilities, the largest of which is in Delta.

While Metro regulates air contaminants under its air quality bylaws, the provincial Environment Ministry oversees compost facilities through laws that govern what can be discharged into the environment. Like the ALC, the ministry takes a “social regulatory approach as opposed to the command and control approach,” allowing officials to be “consultative” in determining the most appropriate response to non-compliance.

In the case of excavated fill, the province regulates soil relocation from construction sites.

The land commission becomes involved when material is dumped on farmland.

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Several of the neighbours Postmedia spoke to for this story said they felt like they were being shuffled between the Environment Ministry and the ALC when they tried to inform officials of what they were seeing. Some also expressed frustration with local government, which can regulate soil deposits on farmland through bylaws, although in unincorporated areas, like Hatzic Valley and the Columbia Valley, the regional district may not have a soil deposit bylaw or the resources to enforce it.

Agriculture Minister Alexis recommended people contact their MLA for “direction and help” navigating the system.

Robert J. Pierson, president of the non-profit Clean Air Alliance of Canada, said B.C.’s legislation needs to “catch up” with the reality on the ground.

“A system has never been put in place to ensure we can keep track of where all this waste is going,” he said.

Pierson wants to see more transparency around sub-contracts, such as when a compost facility contracts with a waste hauler to dispose of unwanted material, and higher penalties that target everyone responsible, not just landowners, when it ends up on farmland.

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Fraser Valley Regional District chairman Lum said the complexity of the current system allows companies to skirt the rules.

“If you get one site shut down, the activity moves to another site,” he said. “It’s frustrating because a lot of the … players seem to understand there’s a lack of enforcement, or long delays in enforcement, and that gives them the opportunity to keep doing it.”

Several years after the site in Matsqui Prairie first came to its attention, the City of Abbotsford is taking the owner of the property to court.

A city spokesperson couldn’t comment on what penalty the city is seeking, but confirmed that before the court action, bylaw officers issued 164 fines, totalling $53,500, for soil deposit without permit and unauthorized commercial vehicles in an agricultural zone.

A property search reveals the land at the corner of Townshipline and Gladwin Road is owned by Gajann and Mandeep Randhawa. Gajann is also the director of a company called Pacific Mainland Contracting.

ALC documents show the Randhawas applied to level an area the size of 28 football fields and bring in fill, including gravel, to raise the property by 1 1/2 metres. The application was denied in 2020, with an ALC officer noting fill had already been placed on the site before the application.

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In December, the ALC filed a remediation order for the property. In March, the land commission informed the owner that it would be considering a penalty.

Reached by phone, Gajann Randhawa told Postmedia his contracting company uses only a “small portion” of the 32-acre property. He said the site has been a plant nursery for the last 30 years, but because the land flooded easily, he stripped and stored the topsoil before bringing in gravel.

“This is not an illegal dump site or anything like that,” he said.

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