by SUSAN MANN
Oxford County hog farmer Eric Van Boekel plans to appeal the $345,000 in fines and 30 days of jail time he received earlier this month after being convicted of spilling manure in the spring of 2007.
The fines don’t include the 25 per cent victim surcharges and were levied against himself, his wife, Yvonne, and his businesses – Van Boekel Hogs Farms Inc. and Van Boekel Holdings Inc. Van Boekel also received two years of probation. The jail time is to be served on weekends. The Van Boekels’ sentencing hearing was held on Jan. 12 in Woodstock; the convictions – seven under the Ontario Water Resources Act, Environmental Protection Act and Nutrient Management Act – occurred in March 2011.
Neither government officials nor industry representatives knows whether the hefty fine and jail time is the toughest ever handed a hog farmer for a manure spill. It’s “a very sizeable fine,” notes Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Mark Wales, who calls the severity of the penalty “unusual.”
Eric Van Boekel says the justice of the peace “never addressed our due diligence defense. He said my men were good men and he believed everything they said and then he found us guilty.”
Van Boekel says farmers are getting “witch-hunted through the countryside for minimal amounts of spillage” by the environment ministry and the farm lobby groups should be doing something about it. Every farmer takes a spill very seriously and all farmers do their very best to protect the environment.
He says there should be minimum amounts of manure spills that should be acceptable instead of the zero tolerance approach used now.
He also questions why municipalities can discharge sewage into Ontario’s waterways and not face any repercussions while farmers get charged for manure spills into those same waterways.
Kate Jordan, Ontario Environment Ministry spokesperson, says some of the charges related to adverse effects, which is the most serious charge under environmental rules.
Eric Van Boekel and Van Boekel Hogs Farms Inc. were convicted in 1994 under the Ontario Water Resources Act. Van Boekel received a suspended sentence and the company was fined a few thousand dollars. The convictions “would have had something to do with impairing water quality, likely a spill,” Jordan says.
Sam Bradshaw, Ontario Pork environmental specialist says he doesn’t think the ministry is on a witch-hunt against farmers. “They’ve been trying to work with people.”
“This is something we don’t like to see,” he adds, referring to the manure spills. The Ontario Farm Environmental Coalition has been working with ministry “for years to get the Nutrient Management Act to a spot where farmers can use it,” he adds. “It’s really done our industry a good service.”
In its Jan. 12 press release, the ministry says it responded to complaints of pig manure spills on Van Boekel’s two hog farms in Oxford County. “The ministry observed significant spills and noted the spills had discharged into the Thames River and Sweets Creek.”
The ministry says the spills resulted in adverse effects and impairment of water quality. It also determined that the flow manure application system that was being used to spread manure on fields was not being operated in accordance with the Nutrient Management Act.
Jordan says she doesn’t have an estimate on the amount of manure that was spilled. “The point of the charges is there was adverse effects, including water impairment and impairment to the surrounding environment.”
As for the manure application system, Jordan notes in this case the manure spreading didn’t follow Nutrient Management Act rules. “Essentially what wasn’t in accordance was the fact that it was causing an adverse effect,” she says. BF
Correction: Yvonne, is in fact Eric Van Boekel's mother.