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B.C. ministry's failures at landfill leads to dead bear, $21,500 penalty

The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure was penalized for years of failures to properly reign in litter and electrify a fence at a landfill in northern B.C.
Whether in the city or a rural landfill, easily accessible garbage can attract and habituate bears in a cycle that often leads to their death.

A B.C. ministry has been handed a $21,500 administrative penalty for failing to reign in garbage and maintain electric fencing around a landfill in a series of violations that led to the death of a black bear. 

The penalties, handed to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in a decision published Wednesday by the government’s Natural Resources Compliance and Enforcement branch, are connected to a landfill outside the northern community of Dease Lake — about 230 kilometres south of the Yukon border on Highway 37.

The landfill sits on a hill 130 metres above a wetland flowing into the lake, and provides a place for the nearby community of 330 people to dump their trash. 

A permit for the landfill, amended in 2011, requires the ministry to build and maintain an electric fence around the facility to prevent bears from entering and eating garbage.

“Maintenance of the electric fence is critical to ensure the safety of wildlife,” wrote Bryan Vroom, director of the Environmental Management Act, in his decision.

In 2018, staff with the B.C. Conservation Officer Service were forced to kill a bear that had accessed the landfill looking for food, according to the decision.

A year later, little had changed. 

Multiple warnings and 41 days of non-compliance

The ministry has since been cited for multiple non-compliances for not regularly reigning in litter at the site and for failures to maintain the fences, according to the decision. 

In 2019, the ministry received a warning after it failed to maintain the fence and gate system to prevent bears from entering the landfill. The next year, another warning was handed down for failure to maintain the fence's electric current to the minimum voltage.

“Despite the history of non-compliances… a follow-up inspection conducted on Aug. 3, 2021, determined that the failure to operate the electric fence at a minimum voltage of 6,000 volts had continued.” 

Throughout the summer of 2021, inspectors said the province had failed to maintain the electric fence’s voltage requirement for 41 days. 

In his decision, Vroom notes the ministry failed “to maintain the basic operational requirements of the landfill, which are meant to protect wildlife in the environment.”

That included minimizing the surface of the landfill so the migration of litter and waste do not become a source of food for bears and other wildlife.

Vroom confirmed that “practices have not demonstrably improved since the bear was destroyed” in 2018 and “the risk to wildlife and human safety at the landfill remains.” 

The director increased the penalty after considering all the warnings the ministry had, and added another combined $4,500 after finding the “failures were predictable as they had been identified over previous years dating back to 2013.” Vroom levied further penalties for economic benefits derived from the non-compliance. 

Impacts from pandemic and flooding lower ministry's penalty

In its defence, the ministry submitted work reports it said showed contractors spent 197 hours obtaining and applying landfill cover material, the decision said. But Vroom said the evidence did not add up and he could not conclude that much time was spent doing the work. 

After reviewing the ministry’s response, he found no comments addressing litter control other than ministry staff  “were busy with tasks outside of their normal business during the pandemic and as a result of floods and landslides.” 

However, in the course of an entire year, the ministry provided a single one-day report showing it monitored the site. Vroom added another $8,500 to the ministry’s penalty.

Documents provided by the ministry state it has since worked with the Regional District of Kitimat Stikine to improve management of the landfill. Some of those measures include hiring a new landfill attendant, daily litter cleanup, the development of new operating procedures, stockpiling gravel and soil to cover the site, and commissioning a study to convert the landfill into a transfer station in the short-term and closing it in the long-term. 

The ministry also argued travel restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic discouraged bidding for contracts and visiting the site. Floods and resulting landslides along Highway 51 led to a $21-million repair effort that required airlifting supplies to remote communities and took attention away from the landfill, added the ministry. 

In the end, Vroom adjusted the penalty down a combined $24,000 less than was originally determined.