A record-setting $300,000 pollution fine has been levied against a shuttered Vancouver area energy-to-waste composting company that was once heavily subsidized by taxpayers but is now under creditor protection.
Avoiding potentially millions of dollars in fines for emitting pungent odours across the region, Harvest Fraser Richmond Organics Ltd., a subsidiary of U.S. company Harvest Power, agreed in B.C. Provincial Court to pay $300,000 for polluting on Nov. 17 and Nov. 25, 2016, for violations of Metro Vancouver Regional District’s air quality bylaw.
The two $150,000 fines are the biggest in Metro Vancouver history but are unlikely to be paid in full because of the way the parent company structured the subsidiary, said Ray Robb, Metro Vancouver’s manager of air quality of enforcement. In fact, the parent company is one of many creditors.
Robb added the settlement stipulated that Metro Vancouver allow the company to change its name to 00891775 B.C. Ltd., which the provincial court system will register when posting the Feb. 22, 2019, court order.
Robb said Metro Vancouver was to charge Harvest with dozens of counts of pollution, which carried fines of up to $1 million per day. The district had evidence of pollution from Sept. 1, 2016, to Nov. 16, 2016, as well as the two days noted in the settlement.
But, said Robb, it was those two days that were a “slam dunk” for the district as there were environmental officers in the field collecting evidence, numerous complaints from Richmond residents were received and the wind didn’t change all day, which made it easy to pinpoint the source of the odour.
“I regret that the community suffered pollution from this source but I am thankful to the many residents that agreed to testify for the prosecution and believe that the substantial fines agreed to were in large part due to the anticipated testimony from the residential witnesses,” said Robb, via email.
“It is hoped that these fines will act as a substantial deterrent against other potential polluters in future,” he added.
It was shortly after those two days that, in December 2016, Harvest Power’s then-CEO, Christian Kasper, came to Richmond for a large town hall meeting, promising to defuse the stink emanating from massive open air piles of food waste that grew and grew after the district banned food scraps from landfills in 2015.
Over the course of 2017, residents continued to suffer a loss in quality of life, and those with respiratory conditions had more noticeable effects – although there was no medical risk from the odours, according to Vancouver Coastal Health.
But in August 2018 the company abandoned its plans and announced it would wind down operations as it filed for protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act.
Filing for creditor protection came as local residents, led in part by realtor Arnold Shuchat, took the company to the Environmental Appeal Board (EAB) to oppose a new air quality permit issued to it. Simultaneously the company fought the permit, claiming a “sniff test” by officials was unscientific. It also tried to forgo provincial regulations because it was situated on federal land. The EAB has yet to file a ruling on its findings, although Robb considers it a moot point now that the facility in East Richmond is closed.
Agreeing with Robb’s future outlook based on the record fine, Shuchat said, “Hopefully it will have a preventative effect on anyone contemplating polluting the air in the way that Harvest did.”
Shuchat called the multi-year ordeal a result of poor planning and political foot-dragging by politicians at Richmond city hall.
“They were forced to participate [in an EAB appeal of the permit] as a result of our group,” he said. “It was our citizens’ group that adduced the evidence.”
In 2017 the City of Richmond stopped sending its organic waste to Harvest and chose to divert it to Delta-based Enviro-Smart Organics.
And now, Robb said, Delta residents are in a “very similar circumstance” with their open-pile facility.
As with Harvest in Richmond, a recently issued air quality permit for Enviro-Smart establishes a perimeter for allowable odours. In this case it is a two-kilometre perimeter around the east Ladner facility and if the stench is detectable for more than four days in a two-week period, Robb has the authority to halt waste deliveries, as he did a number of times with Harvest.
Robb said the EAB could make a ruling that affects Enviro-Smart operations in the future.
Robb said the district is trying to find new places to put the “green” waste.
How Harvest came to be:
Harvest Power entered the organic waste fray in Metro Vancouver in 2009, when it purchased Fraser Richmond Soil and Fibre, which had largely handled landscaping waste since 1993.
Harvest Power received a $5 million grant from the federal Clean Energy Fund to help bankroll its high solids anaerobic digestion facility (the “energy garden,”) touted as the company’s “best-in-class” technology to turn biogas into electricity.
It got another $2 million from Metro Vancouver for improvements and $500,000 plus a $1 million loan from the provincial government in 2012.
“This energy garden will not only create B.C. jobs, it will provide a blueprint for other waste-to-energy projects in B.C., Canada and the U.S.,” said Minister of Energy and Mines Rich Coleman, at the time.