Chilliwack city council is defending its unanimous approval this week of a controversial waste recycling facility near the Fraser River.
As threats of legal action swirled, Mayor Sharon Gaetz said Wednesday those opposed to the facility are simply misinformed.
Council approved fourth and final reading Tuesday of a rezoning proposal for a waste recycling and transfer facility at 7582 Cannor Road.
Critics said they value the recycling work the Ontario-based applicant Aevitas is known for, but not the proposed location in the heavy industrial Cattermole lands.
The threat of legal action sprang up this week about details around the city’s hearing notice from a coalition of groups opposed, who say they are also worried that an accidental spill could impact the Fraser River.
Unfortunately there is a clear lack of understanding about the City of Chilliwack rezoning process and the actual safeguards proposed for the site, said Mayor Sharon Gaetz.
“I get that some would not fully understand our process,” she said. “But what has been frustrating and unwelcome is the desire to twist information around.
“Look we on council all want a safe community, and we all want to make sure we look after the environment,” she said.
Strict rules guide council when conducting a rezoning hearing. That’s what kept them from answering questions following the Dec. 3 hearing, certainly not a Machiavellian desire to push something unpopular through city hall quickly, she emphasized.
“If we’ve been silent on this, it was because we had to be silent under the legislation,” she told the Progress Wednesday. “We never tried to circumvent any questions.”
Council had to be careful not to take in any new information between the third and fourth readings.
But in the wake of the coalition clamouring for answers about why the riverside location on Cannor Road was chosen, Mayor Gaetz is trying to clear the air with facts. It’s only now that she can speak publicly.
The only window for public input was the public rezoning hearing on Dec. 3, she underlined. Council acts in a quasi-judicial capacity during these hearings. To offer the public additional time or considerations would not be fair. They have to conduct hearings, and the notification for them, the same way each and every time, said Gaetz.
Aevitas is gearing up to build a state-of-the-art recycling operation employing 40 to 50 people, not a toxic dump of any kind, she said, as some have erroneously suggested.
With myriad and multi-layered environmental safeguards in place, council felt confident about its controversial decision.
Engineering staff made it clear to council that the distance of the facility from the river, which is about 150 metres, is in fact a sufficient distance from which to operate this recycling plant safely. The location was chosen by the applicant, but city officials hold the view that is acceptable and expect Aevitas to be able to operate safely.
“Given the interconnectedness of all major waterways in Fraser River watersheds, no other location in Chilliwack, or throughout the Lower Mainland for that matter, would be inherently safer than this one for the facility,” she said.
In other words whether the facility site was 150 metres from the river, or 1500 metres, there would be similar vulnerability in the event of a major disaster, either catastrophic flood or earthquake.
As a high-hazard facility it would have to be built to withstand earthquakes, even the “big one” threatening the West Coast.
Storm water flows would not go directly into the river, but into a ditch and then staff could close a valve at the pump station, responding if necessary.
Critics who took issue with the M6 special industrial zoning designation, according to Mayor Gaetz, are not aware that it not only further restricts the use at the site, but also gives the city authority for more enforcement and monitoring.
“It’s another layer of protection.”
Containment specifications found within provincial regulations and standards would have to be met, and Aevitas, has pledged several safeguards that the opposition has seemed to be ignoring. There are plans to install a clay liner, as well as secondary containment ability. Storage areas will be covered, and storm water goes into a containment well that’s valved off.
“What people don’t seem to understand is that this recycling facility takes things that are lying around in people’s backyards and basements, and safely recycles these materials.”
The proposal by Aevitas would see transformer oils re-used and recycled, as well as mercury removed from light bulbs and lamps.
“If we had a flood or other disaster where do you think this stuff, which is laying around at home, would go with out this recycling plant? It would get into the river.”
The proposed location within Cattermole Estates on Cannor Road, already saw heavy industrial use through the years, with adjacent parcels also compatible with heavy industry and special industrial uses.
The remote location just off the highway also makes it perfect for transportation reasons, as trucks can access the site without having to go through residential or busy industrial areas.
So the proposed M6 special industrial zoning, along with a restrictive covenant with its conditions was viewed as the “most appropriate zone” for this facility.
“So from my perspective as mayor, when council votes unanimously as it has done here, it means we are completely convinced that staff has done the work to keep us all safe, and council has done its homework.”
The application has drawn fierce opposition from the critics who say the facility’s location poses a real threat to the nearby Fraser River. It has even drawn a letter from a B.C. Liberal MLA, as well as a visit by the B.C. NDP environment critic.
About 30 members of a coalition of more than 20 groups opposed to the location were present as the vote was recorded and are angry about the decision.
“We plan to challenge this in court,” said Glen Thompson, president of Friends of the Chilliwack River Valley, one of the groups in the coalition that includes First Nations, environment and river stewardship groups.
The coalition has been working with a lawyer for West Coast Environmental Law, who sent the city a last minute letter asking them not to approve fourth reading based on some questions about the notice procedure for the rezoning hearing on Dec. 3.
Now that final adoption of the rezoning bylaw is approved there are plans to file in court after making a presentation to Metro Vancouver on Thursday, Thompson said.
The waste plant, proposed by Aevitas Inc., which will recycle insulating oil and powdered mercury from lightbulbs among other activities, received unanimous council support at third reading, on Dec. 3.
Fourth reading was also unanimous, signalling the applicant met conditions set out during the rezoning process.
Final approval was passed without comment, which seemed to surprise some.
“There was no discussion and no reaction on the part of the city, which is kind of disturbing for us,” said Thompson.
The notice of hearing for the rezoning contained “glowing errors,” according to Thompson, which include the omission of the Aevitas name, nor any mention of the waste recycling activities of hazardous materials that could involve PCBs or mercury powder.
“Plus their map doesn’t indicate the Fraser River or the berm,” Thompson added.
City officials maintained that the conditions set in the special M6 industrial zoning and restrictive covenant, coupled with the company’s unblemished safety record, were deemed sufficient for rezoning approval.
* this story has been modified from the first version with updated information