Thursday, April 15, 2004

Cache Creek trust broken in chicken crisis

VICTORIA - The government plan to dump dead chickens at the Cache Creek landfill relied on trust. Local farmers had to believe that the process would be safe. Local residents - and people along the route - had to trust that the governments had exhausted every alternative before using emergency powers to force dead chickens on Cache Creek.
The governments didn't really consult or explain, or justify their actions. We know best, and you can trust us, they said.
Sadly, that's a doomed position. Citizens don't trust governments. That's not a slag on any particular political party. The NDP brought us the fast ferries; Gordon Campbell vowed not to rip up contracts; the federal Liberals brought us political abuses and the sponsorship scandal. Our skepticism is reasonable.
Because we don't trust them, governments have two choices. Act unilaterally and face the consequences. Or make the effort to convince us that they are right, and that the risks are small and necessary.
The governments chose the first course, trying to force their plan through using emergency powers to let them break the written agreements developed as part of the plan to move Lower Mainland garbage to Cache Creek.
It didn't work. The local people - led by Mayor John Ranta, a politician with Liberal ties, and supported by their MLA - blockaded the dump.
The governments' initial misstep made their problem much greater.
Trust had been, once again, broken. Efforts to justify the decision - belatedly - faced a much tougher audience as a result.
So far, the arguments from the people in Cache Creek opposing the transfer make more sense than the governments' defense of the plan.
All precautions are being taken, the governments say. The dead chickens will be double bagged; the bags will be disinfected and then placed in a watertight bin which is covered with a tarp. The trucks that carry the bins will be followed by an emergency clean-up truck in case of accident. At the dump, a layer of bags will be covered with six inches of lime and two feet of clay. A second layer of dead birds will be covered by another six inches of lime and three feet of clay.
Sounds like serious precautions.
But all through the outbreak, a lot of serious precautions have been taken, and the avian flu just keeps on spreading. The newest site is in Cloverdale, well outside the containment zone. Special checkpoints have been set up at ferry terminals and truck inspection stations to halt the spread.
And people in the Cache Creek area note warily that the government so far hasn't identified the landfill at Burns Bog in the Lower Mainland as a chicken disposal site. If the process is so safe, why aren't the birds staying in the region, they ask. How will the government guarantee that a seagull won't rip open one of those bags, or human error won't allow the virus to spread to their farms?
The dead chickens have to go somewhere, but the governments will have to make their case much more convincingly before they can expect to find a community willing to become home to someone else's hazardous waste.
The best method of disposal, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, is on the farm. The carcasses can be composted in the barns, a process which generates enough heat to kill the avian flu virus. In European outbreaks mobile incinerators have been brought around.
The second choice is incineration at other sites.
And landfill disposal comes third.
Meanwhile, the people of Cache Creek aren't going to accept government claims on blind faith. And other communities considering allowing landfill sites - on the basis of promised protections from the province - are now going to see that those promises may be broken too easily.
No one expects a perfect response in a time of crisis. But now it's time for governments to learn from their errors and move on.
Footnote: Our methods of raising and marketing chickens may be partly responsible for this disaster. When millions of birds are being raised in a small area, the stage is set for a devastating outbreak. Our system of marketing boards - limiting the number producers to keep prices high - may be increasing the risk by encouraging centralized production and blocking smaller and regional producers unable to afford to buy quota. It's time for a closer look.

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