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Ralph McRae Wants Your Rotting Veggies

Waste hauling exec is ready to spend big on a 3.5 acre compost operation. But can it pass Lytton's sniff test?

By Colleen Kimmett 7 Jun 2011 |

Colleen Kimmett writes about sustainability and business for The Tyee and others. Read her previous pieces appearing in The Tyee here.

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McRae on road to Botanie Valley: 'Some people just don't like to see successful people come in here.'

It's clear to Ralph McRae that he's not wanted in Botanie Valley.

I'm in the passenger seat of his slate-grey Land Rover, and we're headed down a narrow gravel road that connects the valley to the nearby town of Lytton. We've just passed a road sign with a sticker on that reads "McRat." There's a moment of silence.

"McRat?" I ask tentatively.

"I know, nice eh?" McRae replies. "I cannot win. Some people just don't like to see successful people come in here."

McRae is successful, in law and in business. As a lawyer he was credited with discovering an obscure legal loophole that saved Northland Properties from bankruptcy.

He is also the CEO of Leading Brands Inc., distributor of True Blue blueberry juice. He's the president of the Waste Hauler's Association of BC, and he's the chair and CEO of Northwest Group Properties Ltd. and Northwest Waste Solutions Inc., according to its website, the largest independent waste collector in the Lower Mainland.

His latest venture is Northwest Organics soil farm. Construction is almost complete on the 3.5 acre compost facility sited on the McKay ranch, one of the largest properties in the Botanie valley and one of the oldest titled homesteads in the province.

The project is proving that, while composting may not have the same environmental risks and impacts as land filling does, in a part of the province that has been a repository for Metro Vancouver's waste it's proving to be just as politically and emotionally charged.

'A great place for green initiatives'

As we drive onto the ranch McRae explains that composting is "only part of the overall goal" of Northwest Organics. He is in the process of getting the existing alfalfa field certified organic, and wants to try grapes, hops and other things that could do well on the steep slopes of the property. The soil he produces in the composting process will be the base of his farming operation. "From the earth, back to the earth," says McRae, repeating the company's motto.

Several years ago, spurred by talk of "zero waste," McRae began exploring composting. In August 2009, he says he and his brother were out scouting for potential places to site a composting facility when they stumbled upon the ranch. Their consultant declared the spot "perfect," says McRae, "and all of a sudden, we had a farm."

He doesn't expect to make money on the composting side of things, at least not for the first five years. The majority of Northwest Organic's profits will come from the organic farming, McRae says. He envisions international volunteers (WWOOF'ers) coming to stay and work on the farm, "eco-tourists" who will explore the surrounding area. "What we're hoping that this initiative does is really start to bring people's attention to the interior of British Columbia as a great place to put green initiatives."

Some locals see a greenwash

The members of the Botanie Valley Advisory Committee don't share this vision. The committee formed in January 2011 with the goal of stopping or severely regulating the project.

For the good part of the past 12 months, Northwest Organics and the Botanie Residents Association have been engaged in a back and forth public relations campaign. Residents of Lytton received letters in their mailbox urging readers to learn the real truth about the project.

In December of this year, McRae sued two local men for alleged defamation, trespassing and interfering with relations with contractors. I met one of these men, Michael Sam, along with Abe Kingston and Sheila Maguire, two others involved in the committee, at a neighbour's house on Botanie Valley Road.

In response to the lawsuit, Sam counters that he was simply speaking out with his concerns, that he's always been able to hunt and fish on the ranch property before, and that, as a member of the band's range patrol committee, he was following Lytton First Nation band protocol when he stopped contractors from going up Botanie Valley road to the job site this spring.

(A large sign on this road warns travelers that they are on Lytton First Nation territory, and they require permission to pass. McRae asserts that "the road is a public road. Full stop." Lytton First Nation chief Janet Webster did not return numerous messages left by this reporter.)

When Kingston sets out a plate of wild asparagus, Sam tells me that all kinds of native, edible plants grow in the valley: potatoes, celery, arnica. Sam says as a kid they would go camping for three or four days, eating most of their food "picked off the land."

"I don't think this will be any good for the valley and our people," says Sam when asked why he doesn't want Northwest Organics to stay. He admits that part of the reason he's uncomfortable is because he doesn't know much about composting. His points of reference are the chicken manure composting facility in nearby Cache Creek, which all four agree you can smell from the highway, and a municipal compost facility in Washington that Sam toured recently with the chief and other band members. That one, he says, also stank.

McRae says he's spared no expense on his facility to ensure that it doesn't stink.

Northwest Organics is employing a method of composting called open windrow. Basically it means that organic material is dumped in piles -- windrows -- which are left uncovered. Composting is regulated by the B.C. Organic Recycling Regulations (OMRR), created by the province in 2002. It requires that any compost facility must be designed by a certified professional, and meet specific requirements to control odour and leachate (any water that comes into contact with the organic waste during the composting process.)

At the job site, McRae shows me the large cement pad where these windrows, seven feet high and fifteen across, 14 in all, will sit for the "curing" process. This where bio-organisms do their work, breaking down organic material into soil (the product of composting is colloquially known as soil, technically called "humus" and sold commercially as "soil amender.")

McRae points out the black liner that sits under both cement pads, and a six-foot deep lined swale that's been dug around the perimeter of the facility. The swale, he explains, is meant to direct any leachate from the compost into a holding pond, also lined with thick plastic. Water from this pond will be re-used on the windrows to adjust moisture content as required. An eight-foot-high berm, a raised dirt barrier, runs between the facility and Botanie creek.

"I've spent a lot of money to do this right," McRae says. "This will not smell."

Some smell unavoidable, say experts

Any type of composting, if done properly (maintaining a temperature of 55 degrees Celcius for at least two weeks), destroys harmful pathogens like E.coli or botulism, which exist in the waste. It also breaks down most of the chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in the organic material. And, if done properly, by adding woody waste and maintaining proper oxygen and moisture levels, one can greatly mitigate smells.

But it's impossible to avoid some odour in composting, according to Anthony Lau, an associate professor in the chemical and biological engineering department at UNBC.

"The more different materials you mix in there, the more different types of odours you have," Lau says. This is why he says open windrow method of composting food waste -- the method that McRae is employing at Northwest Organics -- rarely happens in urban areas. Lau notes that the state of California, for example, mandates that composting of organic waste happens in closed containers for exactly this reason.

Right now, Metro Vancouver's organic waste is going to Fraser Richmond Soil and Fibre, which composts the organic material in closed containers, allowing operators to capture and treat smelly gases that are emitted in the composting process.

Closed composting, where it's not exposed to the elements, also helps control for leachate, says John Paul, the principal of Transform Compost Products and a certified professional who helped author the provincial composting regulations.

"The quantity of water is incredible, so down here on the rainy coast, if you will, it's much, much more cost-effective to build an enclosed composting process than an outdoor exposed process," he says. Closed methods don't necessarily produce a better quality of soil, he says, "it's just that the ability to control the process is better, less susceptible to outside weather conditions and I have a greater ability to potentially deal with odour and leachate as well."

Then there's the issue of what to do with the end product. Lau says this is a major factor affecting the adoption of large-scale composting. "Compost is a good thing to do, but if you cannot find a market for it, then what do you do?"

McRae has solved this issue with the farm. Composting is allowed under the Agricultural Land Reserve Act (the ranch is part of the reserve) as long as 50 per cent of what's produced stays on the farm. McRae says the soil he produces will be tested regularly (this is not required under OMRR unless the product is being sold) and feedstock coming into the facility will be visually inspected to ensure it's acceptable.

"I can't guarantee that that some things won't end up here that shouldn't," he says. "When we receive things, we know where it came from, we can identify that and control it."

Technically, Northwest Organics is allowed, so long as it notifies the Ministry of Environment and remains within the OMRR regulations, to compost materials like chicken manure, chicken processing waste, fish processing waste, brewery waste, along with more run of the mill things like grass clippings and household kitchen waste.

Chicken manure in particular can lead to high concentrations of nitrogen in the resulting soil, which, when applied to the land, could potentially harm waterways and groundwater. The province currently has no regulations around the application of compost.

McRae has promised, publicly and repeatedly, that the only materials he will be composting are "wood chips, tree cuttings, grass clipping, separated food stuffs and compostable paper products."

"Yard waste and kitchen scraps," he says firmly. "Nothing else will come in."

A place for Metro’s waste?

This doesn't reassure Kingston or the others. "The point is, all this stuff is allowed under the regulations," says Kingston. "And what if he sells the company? What if he sells the site? There's no regulations to protect us from that. There's no public consultation if the feedstock changes."

Maguire, who is married to Ed Roest, the other man facing a defamation lawsuit brought by McRae, says the project is already changing the nature of the valley. "Beep, beep beep," she says, imitating the high-pitch sound of a large vehicle in reverse. "I hear it every day."

She brings out a letter that McRae sent to Botanie residents in April, apologizing for an accident involving a contractor vehicle. "To avoid a reoccurance we will require anyone driving a large truck and who is unfamiliar with the road to be accompanied by a pilot car," the letter states.

Maguire says she and Roest summered in Botanie for 20 years before retiring and making the valley their permanent home last year. "Everybody had always been welcome on that farm," she says. "Seeing this happen just makes you crazy inside."

For his part, McRae says he feels like he's done everything in his power to respond to concerns. He hosted public meetings, he manned an information booth at the farmers' market, he offers tours of the facility, and most recently, he launched the Northwest Organics scholarship program -- six annual scholarships of between $500 and $2,500 for students who are pursuing post-secondary education and training.

More, importantly, he says, "I'm coming from a place of not wanting to hurt this valley. All I ask is for the benefit of the doubt," he says.

Part of the reason Kingston, and the others, are reluctant to give this to him is because they do not believe this is, as McRae insists, "not about shipping organic waste from Metro Vancouver."

"There's major organics diversion happening in the Lower Mainland," says Kingston. "I'm not a dummy, I can see what's going on."

Metro Vancouver has a goal of diverting 260,000 tonnes of organic waste from the regular garbage stream. It has banned kitchen scraps from single-family residential garbage bin by the end of next year. The next target is multi-family buildings and the commercial food service sector.

"We know there will be a need for more [composting] facilities," says Ken Carrusca, division manager for Metro Vancouver's Integrated Planning Division. "It has been reported that there's a lot of interest by the private sector in providing these types of services."

It's undeniable that McRae is well positioned to provide this service. His assets include the new compost facility in Botanie Valley, a fleet of waste hauling trucks (including alternative fuel vehicles), and a site in South Vancouver that is intended to serve as a station for recyclable materials; glass, paper, metals and potentially organics.

Until that facility is finished, says McRae, likely not for another 18 months to two years, any guess as to if, or how much of Northwest Organic's waste might come from Metro Vancouver is "pure speculation."

Even those who are accepting of Northwest Organics are uncomfortable with the possibility of trucking Metro Vancouver's organic waste into Botanie. Amandah Jensan, who operates an organic farm called Sointula Greens up the road from McRae's ranch says she initially had concerns about the compost facility and wrote McRae a letter saying so. After touring the facility and researching it for herself, she felt reassured.

Jensan apologies for the mess around her place -- there's old junk stacked on and around the porch, her late-husband's belongings that she hasn't gotten around to dealing with. It's not so easy to deal with waste in the country, she says. There's no collection, and it's expensive to take to the dump. That's why she, and nearly everyone else in the valley already do their own composting. The whole situation with McRae and his opponents saddens her, she says.

"I'm sure more facilities like this will dot the landscape in times to come," Jensan wrote later in an email. "In principle, all large metropolitan areas should take care of their own compost."  [Tyee]

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