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Lytton-area compost operation generates odours and lawsuits

In a Fraser Canyon community where people are nervous to speak their mind, Lytton Mayor Jessoa Lightfoot chooses her words carefully.

She won’t directly say that a controversial organic compost operation — nominated for a Small Business BC Award — is bad for business but fears it could be in conflict with the village’s message to tourists.

“Lytton doesn’t have a lot going for it except clean air and clean water,” Lightfoot said in an interview. “If anything, that’s what we hook our identity on … If you can compost and it doesn’t have a negative effect on the surrounding area, that’s one thing; but our concern is that it may have a negative impact on a very vibrant tourism industry.”

The Vancouver Sun reported in December on freedom-of-information documents detailing more than 185 public complaints about odours associated with Revolution Ranch (formerly Northwest Organics) in the Botanie Valley, just north of Lytton.

Ralph McRae is president and CEO of the 280-hectare ranch, which converts table scraps from Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley into organic compost. He also runs Northwest Waste, a major trash hauling company in the Lower Mainland.

Lightfoot said area residents are fearful of commenting publicly on Revolution Ranch due to several defamation lawsuits McRae has launched in B.C. Supreme Court in recent years alleging untrue and harmful statements about his operation.

Some retirees are dipping into their RRSPs to pay legal costs. “My sadness comes from the fact that people are still somewhat muzzled,” Lightfoot said. “There’s a lot of concern about people losing their equity by being tied up in … suits.”

Dorothy Dodge, curator of the Lytton Museum, said she initially supported the compost operation but has changed her mind due to the odour issue and the lawsuits. “I don’t know whether it’s safe (to talk) or not,” she said. “I’m 85 and just barely getting by and I sure as hell don’t need to be sued.”

She noted that her late husband, Lloyd, used to live on the historic ranch property where the compost is located.

“They can’t sue him because he died four years ago.”

Tricia Thorpe lives at the mouth of the Botanie Valley, a few kilometres from the compost site, and is concerned about the impact of the smells on property values. “It’s more times you smell it than you don’t. Nobody’s going to want to buy anything with that stink.”

She also questioned the fossil fuels involved in trucking a green product from the Lower Mainland to the Fraser Canyon.

McRae refused to be interviewed but said in a written statement that Revolution Ranch is at the “forefront of modern organic farming and recycling practices” and produces quality organic compost by processing only source-separated food scraps and yard trimmings. The compost area covers four hectares on the ranch. The compost provides badly needed nutrition to the farm and is in high demand by organic farmers across the region, he added.

The operation has created 15 year-round jobs in an economically depressed community and “should be a model for organics recycling,” McRae said.

Revolution Ranch is among 10 companies nominated in the “best community impact” category of the Small Business BC Awards, of which Vancity is the official sponsor. A short list of five will be announced Jan. 29 and the winner Feb. 25.

The Ministry of Environment says it visited Revolution Ranch in April and July 2015 and found it was not complying with its odour management plan.

A followup inspection in October found the operation in compliance, but that hasn’t stopped the public concerns. The ministry said it continues to log complaints and will conduct followup inspections as necessary. McRae said earlier that the problems started in the summer of 2014 when a forest fire followed by major rain disrupted the composting operation well into 2015.

Revolution sent a letter to local residents dated Oct. 29 urging them to phone the company directly with complaints because calling the province’s poacher-and-polluter hotline would not result “in any constructive response.”

Harvest Power, a company composting organic waste in Richmond, has also drawn public complaints about odours, although a third facility, Net Zero Waste in Abbotsford, has not.

Lightfoot said she lodged an official odour complaint against Revolution Ranch with the province in December. “It was really strong, I rolled down the windows to pick up what it was.”

She noted that weather conditions such as winds and temperature inversions can affect the impact of the smell. “The reality is, there are odours. That’s what needs to be addressed — how to mitigate that odour.”

B.C. Supreme Court documents refer to a consulting report by Michael Easton of the University of Liverpool for the Lytton First Nation. The report, which McRae challenges, described the compost facility as “a threat to the ecological integrity of the region,” while potentially posing excessive risk in the form of the “importation and spreading of plant and human disease pathogens, insect pests, noxious weeds and contaminants.”

Among those facing defamation lawsuits filed as recently as 2015 are Meghan Porter and the Botanie Valley Advisory Committee; Mike Sam, a member of the Lytton First Nation; Ed Roest; Sheila Maguire; and various John and Jane Does.

Maguire sought to have the defamation action dismissed as a SLAPP lawsuit limiting freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms but the Supreme Court in 2013 dismissed the application. In 2014, the Court of Appeal upheld the lower court ruling.