Saanich residents are reiterating their concerns after a workplace safety closure at a Richmond cement plant has caused months worth of biosolids to be redirected to the Hartland Landfill.
The disposal of biosolids, or processed human waste, has been at the heart of a decade-long debate in Greater Victoria. In 2011, following public concern, the Capital Regional District (CRD) banned the land application of biosolids. But last year, after discovering the Lafarge cement plant – where biosolids are now normally shipped – closes for four to six weeks a year, the CRD reversed its ban to allow for biosolids (700 tonnes) to be spread at the Hartland Landfill during that period of time.
At the time, there was significant opposition to the plan by people concerned about possible water and air contamination and who criticized the CRD for coming up with a “quick fix” rather than looking for more sustainable options.
But no one was given the chance to oppose the latest spreading of biosolids as the decision was never made public. Biosolids have been getting redirected to the Hartland Landfill since late November when a workplace death closed the Lafarge plant. CRD senior manager of the environmental protection division Glenn Harris said they expect Lafarge will start receiving the biosolids again by the end of March. In that case, Hartland will have spread biosolids on the landfill for approximately four months – four times what it allotted for in a year.
Whether that could pose any kind of risk to human or environmental health is up for debate. The Class A biosolids being spread are the result of human waste undergoing several treatment processes in accordance with provincial standards. The landfill is using them as a “nutrient additive” to improve vegetation growth in reforested areas and as a biocover to reduce methane emissions. In many places around the world, biosolids are used as fertilizer on agricultural land but that practice is not permitted on food crops in B.C.
But, critics point out the potential impacts of many of the substances present in biosolids are not well understood yet. All manner of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, hormones, pathogens, bacteria and heavy metals end up down the toilet alongside human waste. Often, these substances are present in such small quantities that researchers have determined they don’t pose a threat to human or environmental health, but B.C. provincial standards don’t require the waste industry to test for all of them.
“Hartland is one of the least desirable places to do it (spread biosolids) because if there are problems there are residences quite close, there are farms, there are schools and also it’s the headwaters for Tod Creek,” said Hugh Stephens, vice-chair of the Mount Work Coalition.
But, as University of Victoria civil engineering professor Caetano Dorea pointed out, a landfill is about the safest place biosolids could be put. Dorea said landfills are already engineered to keep toxic substances – namely leachate – in. If groundwater was being contaminated, he said, the worry would be about the design of the landfill, not the biosolids sitting on it.
There have been a number of leaks at Hartland though, so it is possible future ones could include biosolids. Really, Stephens said, a main problem is the location of the landfill.
“It’s not in the middle of nowhere, it’s in a recreational area,” he said.
Still, Dorea said, if the landfill is running properly the risk of contamination is very low. He said it’s important that people are concerned, but warns against the “not in my backyard effect.” Human waste has to go somewhere.
Stephens argued there are better ways to be disposing of the biosolids though. He suggested spreading them in remote areas, like the District of Nanaimo does, or sending them to a biochar plant. At the very least, he said, the public should be aware of what’s going on and should be given a chance to intervene.
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