Osoyoos man hopes proposal can end agricultural waste burning

By on February 6, 2018

Thick smoke billows into the air from an orchard burning next to 100 Ave. just north of Osoyoos in the RDOS. When this photo was taken on Jan. 31, the venting index was “good” meaning that smoke can dissipate and burning with a permit is allowed. (Richard McGuire photo)

If Osoyoos resident Ken Murray had his way, burning of agricultural waste in the rural area around the town would become a thing of the past.

Murray says he and his wife are both “long-suffering asthmatics,” and they find the burning by some local orchardists to be especially problematic.

But he believes he has an idea that would not impose any economic hardship on local farmers and could solve the thorny problem of finding a location for a regional district composting facility.

“My campaign for a burn ban has been lockstep with requesting provincial financial assistance for alternate waste disposal so the agriculturalists’ input costs are not unduly impacted,” Murray said in a recent letter to board directors in the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen (RDOS).

Murray proposes that orchard wood waste be directed to an expanded waste facility that would replace burning by separating it into two streams – composting for foliage and small branches and chipping for large limbs, trunks and stumps.

And he wants the province to cover the additional capital costs.

Currently RDOS discussions are deadlocked on a regional facility to compost residential food waste, as well as on a system for composting municipalities’ wastewater treatment sludge.

Those discussions have looked at the Summerland-Penticton area due to its proximity to the “population centroid,” Murray said.

“If agricultural waste is included, a ‘waste volume centroid’ may well be further south toward Oliver-Osoyoos, and more suitable locations may present themselves,” he said.

Such possible locations, he added, could include Osoyoos Indian Band lands or even be in the Lower Similkameen, when waste from that area is factored in.

Open burning in the RDOS is not permitted between April 15 and Oct. 15 each year, so much of the burning takes place during the winter when trees are pruned or cut.

But burning in the winter is problematic, Murray says, because the Okanagan Valley is often either socked in by inversions or the air is stagnant, holding the smoke in the valley.

Under the RDOS Open Air Burning Bylaw and provincial regulations, burning can only start on days when the venting index is “good” and when it is “good” or “fair” on the second day the debris is anticipated to release smoke.

But such days are rare, and Murray doesn’t believe the standards are stringent enough.

Mark Pendergraft, RDOS director for Area ‘A,’ Rural Osoyoos, says parts of Murray’s proposal might be practical, but he’s concerned about the impact on farmers. He’s also not sure that the province would be willing to provide capital funding for an alternative, as Murray suggests.

“Probably the biggest stumbling block would be the actual banning of agricultural burning,” said Pendergraft. “Somehow or another, the costs can’t be borne by just the agriculturalists.”

Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff shares this concern, although burning is prohibited within the Town of Osoyoos boundaries.

“I’m not sure that you can say to people you cannot burn period,” she said.

McKortoff says the problem of agricultural burning and pollution has “certainly been much improved over the years,” recalling that when she first came to Osoyoos, before there were wind machines, orchardists burned smudge pots to keep the frost off trees.

“You couldn’t see because of the smoke,” she said. “So we’ve done a lot of things to improve the situation. People now don’t burn their prunings, they mulch them. So all these things are positive.”

The RDOS currently has a voluntary wood-chipping program that subsidizes three quarters of the costs, with growers paying the remaining 25 per cent.

But Cameron Baughen, RDOS solid waste management co-ordinator, said the program is intended for farmers removing whole trees rather than smaller waste.

The RDOS brings the grinder to the farmer’s property, but growers are responsible for arranging and paying for pulling and gathering of trees into piles.

The chipped material, which may have value, is the responsibility and property of the owner.

Baughen said the program doesn’t cover smaller branches and suckers, which can be handled with flail mowers or smaller grinders.

During the three years he’s been in charge of the chipping program, Baughen said the program has never been oversubscribed.

“We never meet budget, so we can certainly assist any grower,” he said, adding that in the Osoyoos area the program is only provided to farmers in Area ‘A’ – not those within the town limits.

As for smoke, Baughen suggests this is often associated with bad burning practices.

These include burning green or wet branches, or putting leaves or grass in the piles so they are dense and there is not enough air moving through them as they burn.

Also, he notes that the province prohibits burning of other materials such as plastics.

Even suckers, he said, if allowed to dry and if they’re given enough oxygen, burn fairly cleanly.

“If they’re allowed to be smothered with other materials like leaves, moist materials or garbage, it’s going to create smoke,” he added.

Pendergraft said most agriculturalists try to comply with the rules and the few that don’t may be unaware of the rules.

He also questions Murray’s idea of handling agricultural waste through a centralized composting facility when trucking costs are considered.

Both Pendergraft and McKortoff point out that the landfill site in Osoyoos already handles composting. Multiple, decentralized composting facilities may make more sense, they suggest.

Murray lived in Calgary and area before coming to Osoyoos 14 years ago, having worked as a geologist in the oil industry. He said he was warned about wildfires and smoke issues before coming here, but he shrugged off the warnings thinking it can’t be that bad.

“There’s not a lot we can do about wildfire smoke, but wintertime agricultural burning there is something we can do about it,” Murray says.

Not only is there often incomplete combustion with agricultural waste, but the particulate material can also contain toxic pesticide residues, he added.

Moving away from Osoyoos, however, is not something he considers, pointing out that he and his wife came here to escape from the Prairie winters.

Whether or not the politicians adopt his idea, it may at least start a discussion.


Osoyoos Times

Ken Murray wants to see a compost and chipping site replace agricultural waste burning. (Richard McGuire photo)

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  1. Lance

    February 7, 2018 at 3:26 pm

    Come on, really……First, the smoke here in Osoyoos, the wild fires in the summer, was horrendous, could not open your windows at night, big bills for using the air conditioner……

    I have seen so much burning lately, to say that there’s nothing really that can be done, not true, something can be done, but no one wants to stir the pot for the orchardists, sick, they believe it’s their God given right to burn, they won’t even consider options.

  2. Jason

    February 8, 2018 at 9:26 am

    I don’t see how the government has to pay for these costs to wood waste? It can get stockpiled for Firewood to burn in the winter, and heat homes, but I bet that’s the next move? Stop wood burning heat sources? If the agricultural sector is causing problems for your health, then perhaps you should move to another area that is more suiting to your condition?

  3. Lennie McDonald

    February 11, 2018 at 11:02 am

    I agree with this article. People are moving away because of the smoke from the local burns. People are leaving our RV parks early due to the smoke. A lot of snowbirds have lung issues and can’t be around smoke – Osoyoos is losing money when this happens. Having the waste chipped and re used is a much more sensible way of doing things not mention way healthier.

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