02/04/2016 08:32 EST | Updated 02/04/2017 05:12 EST

Spallumcheen's Drinking Water Polluted By Liquid Manure Says UVic Law Centre

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woman holding glass at water tap and filling water.
The University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre is asking the Interior Health authority to order a permanent moratorium on the spread of liquid manure on a dairy farm above a drinking water aquifer that serves the North Okanagan community of Spallumcheen.

The formal request, on behalf of the town's residents, comes after nearly two years of a water quality advisory warning residents of the potential health risks of high nitrate levels in water supplied by the Hullcar aquifer.

"Interior Health has issued water quality advisories to the users of the aquifer saying that water from that aquifer should not be given to infants in formula, and that people who are over 65 or who have immunity problems or have heart, blood, lung problems — a whole variety of people — should not be using that water," said Calvin Sanborn, director of UVic's Environmental Law Centre.

"It's very clear that there's a public health hazard with that water."

Nitrates in the water

Sanborn told Daybreak South host Chris Walkerthat nitrate levels of 10 parts per million are considered unsafe.

He said the figures he has obtained from the Steele Springs Water District show that nitrate levels exceeded that limit in 19 of the past 23 months.

Rob Birtles, the team leader for small water systems for Interior Health, said the health authority itself has not yet established that nitrate levels are indeed rising.

He also added that nitrates are "very difficult" to trace.

"In this case an adjacent dairy farm is thought to be the cause by the local residents, but we have yet to determine that," he said.

Birtles said Interior Health has received the request from UVic's Environmental Law Centre and are reviewing it, and have also been discussing the water quality issue with the Ministries of Environment, Agriculture and the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

Birtles said this problem is not unique to Spallumcheen — adding that communities in the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island have also had problems with nitrate levels in their aquifers — and said the province as a whole needs to come up with "better management practices."

Release of government documents demanded

The Environmental Law Centre has also filed a complaint with Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, claiming that the provincial government broke the law by not immediately disclosing information about the water source contamination in the aquifer.

"Back in March of 2014 the Ministry of Environment identified the problem with the farm and said there was reasonable and probable grounds that the farm was polluting the groundwater, and they said you can only put manure effluent on your field with special authorization," Sanborn said.

"Then they proceeded to authorize millions of gallons of effluent to go onto the field."

Sanborn said his organization is asking for the government to release those documents and to release tests showing how much nitrogen was in the soil.

"We think it's a classic case of closed government," he said.

CBC News put in multiple requests to speak to Environment Minister Mary Polak, but our calls were not returned before deadline.