Another environmental dilemma: Do biosolids pose a public health risk?

Another environmental dilemma: Do biosolids pose a public health risk?

Creating Coal Hills Class A compost at the CVRD  |  Comox Valley Regional District photo

Another environmental dilemma: Do biosolids pose a public health risk?

By George Le Masurier

Members of the Comox Valley Electoral Areas Services Commission came face-to-face with yet another environmental dilemma this week: sewage sludge.

Sewage sludge is the concentrated residue of everything Comox Valley residents flush down their toilets or pour into their sinks after the wastewater has been separated, treated and piped into the Strait of Georgia.

Unlike most other regional districts, the Comox Valley Regional District treats its sewage sludge to a level that qualifies it as a Class A compost, according to provincial Ministry of Environment regulations. That means the sludge has met certain Organic Matter Recycling Regulation (OMRR) levels of pathogens and other contaminants, such as heavy metals.

The CVRD then sells the compost to local homeowners as Skyrocket and to companies outside of the Comox Valley for large scale land applications for agriculture, forestry and other industries.

Most other BC regional districts either dispose of their sludge in landfills or treat it to Class B (raw biosolids) or to Class A biosolids products (sterilized sludge). Only Ladysmith, Kelowna and Vernon produce a Class A compost equivalent to the CVRD.

But is the treated sludge safe to use in gardens that grow food for human consumption or to be spread on open land?

The CVRD says it is, and staff point to studies embraced by the BC Ministry of Environment.

But after a large-scale land application of Class B treated sludge from the Powell River sewage treatment plant on a Hamm Road property in the Black Creek area earlier this year, a Campbell River environment group has challenged the safety of biosolids.

In a presentation to the Electoral Areas Services Commission Monday, Philippe Lucas said land applications of biosolids are dangerous because they pose a health risk to humans and legal liabilities for the regional district.

Lucas, a PhD student at the University of Victoria and a former Victoria city councillor and Capital Regional District director, represented the Campbell River Environmental Committee.

“After years of debate, academic studies examining the impact of sewage sludge on the local marine environment confirmed what many of us have long suspected: sewage is unquestionably harming the health of our oceans and subsequently threatening human health as well,” he told the commission.

The Capital Regional District recently stopped dumping raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“So why would it be any safer to expose our local farms, fields and or forests?” Lucas said.

In a letter to the commission, Leroy McFarlane, president of the Campbell River Environment Committee, said even Class A sludges pose health risks.

“If you walk through Canadian Tire, be aware that every liquid on their shelves could potentially find its way into the sewer system and therefore show up in biosolids,” McFarlane wrote. “A similar walk-through London Drugs will remind you that pharmaceuticals and chemicals sold there might also become a part of biosolids being applied to fields and gardens and show up in our food supply and enter our water and in some cases become airborne.”

Lucas said that some European countries have banned the use of biosolids. And he said that some grocers, including Thrifty Foods, refuse to carry products grown on land fertilized with biosolids.

He said First Nations bands, the Sierra Club of BC and others, including the Island Organic Producers Association (IOPA), all oppose land applications of biosolids.

The IOPA certifies organic farms on Vancouver Island. It has certified about a half-dozen farms in the Comox Valley as organic growers. It is supported by local businesses such as Seeds Food Market in Cumberland, Edible Island Whole Foods Market, the Atlas Cafe, Locals Restaurant and Buckerfields.

The commission took no action, but directors suggested the CVRD staff review the science and assess the legal liabilities.

Area A Director Daniel Arbour noted the difference in the CVRD product versus the Hamm Road application but said the discussion would be informative for the public.

“My view is that the skyrocket product is a highly processed composted material, and staff report low levels of contaminants. Granted it is not pure and free of pharmaceuticals, but we need to report on levels so people understand the level of risk, which could prove minimal compared to alternatives,” Area A Director Daniel Arbour told Decafnation after the meeting.

 

MINISTRY AND CVRD SAYS IT’S SAFE

The Lucas presentation focused on Class B and Class A biosolids, as did the studies his presentation relied on.

The BC Ministry of Environment website doesn’t clearly differentiate between Class B and A biosolids and the Class A compost product produced by the CVRD. It appears to lump all biosolids together and labels them safe.

“Biosolids are the stabilized products that are recovered at the end of the wastewater treatment process. Biosolids are rich in nutrients that may be beneficially used to improve soil conditions and provide nutrition for plants. Because of the biological components of biosolids, proper management is important to control the impact on the environment and human health,” the website says.

The website has links to multiple studies that support its statement.

But the CVRD has “invested heavily … to produce a product that has unrestricted use, and is a valuable source of recycled nutrients,” Kris La Rose, senior manager of water/wastewater services, told Decafnation.

And in a report to the EASC in April of this year, CVRD Chief Administrative Officer Russell Dyson noted the numerous standards and regulations that the regional district’s biosolids must meet.

“In comparison to other nutrient sources available to agricultural producers, such as manure or chemical fertilizers, land application of biosolids has a more stringent regulatory framework, while providing a similar soil amendment,” he said. An attachment to his report included a comparison of regulatory, product composition and environmental considerations for biosolids, manure and chemical fertilizers.

The regional district Skyrocket page on its website suggests the product is safe for use in landscaping, flower gardens and lawns. It does not mention using the product in vegetable gardens

Area B Director Arzeena Hamir, who operates a certified organic farm, told Decafnation after the meeting that she “could not and would not” use biosolids as fertilizer on the food products she sells.

That’s not the case in the United States, she said, where certified organic growers are allowed to use biosolids.

“This is a big societal question we have to address,” she told Decafnation.

 

COMOX VALLEY BIOSOLIDS

Mike Imrie, the CVRD’s manager of wastewater services, said the district sells between 7,000 and 7,500 cubic yards of Skyrocker per year, while the wastewater treatment plant generates about 1,375 to 1,500 tonnes of dry biosolids annually.

Every week a total of 800 yards is placed in one of five bunkers, which ends up as 160 yards of finished product for sale, after composting, screening and curing. The loss in volume comes about from evaporation, and screening out of oversize amendment, which is recycled back into the next batch.

“All of our Biosolids are used in the composting process and none are disposed of in any other way.” Imrie told Decafnation.

The wet biosolids are mixed with an amendment product, which is usually chipped and ground green waste from the landfill, Imrie says. Every four kilograms of wet biosolids is mixed with six kilograms of amendment.

The Class A composting process exposes the sludge to high temperatures for extended periods. The result is a higher level of sterilization of the end product and a higher extent of oxidation of contaminants of emerging concern.

La Rose says the regional district is keeping up with worldwide research on the presence of pharmaceuticals in biosolids.

“So far the conclusions are that pharmaceuticals that are present in our wastewater are more likely to be discharged in the liquid, and the pharmaceuticals that remain in the biosolids are more likely to be broken down during the composting process,” La Rose said.

He said they are following best practices known now that recycling nutrients and organic matter through composting the biosolids is the best way to recycle them.

“It’s interesting to note that there is increased discussion in Europe to allow biosolids from smaller communities with less industry to be used on organic farms,” he said. “The reason for this is that organic farms can only use rock phosphate or compost, and rock phosphate interestingly enough also contains heavy metals. It’s also of concern that our world supply of phosphorus is diminishing, so we need to recycle as much as we can.”

 

OTHER ALTERNATIVES?

During his presentation on behalf of the Campbell River Environment Committee, Lucas said regional districts have four other options for disposing of biosolids.

He said there are technologies to remove heavy metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and pharmaceuticals, but other regional districts have found this too expensive.

Biosolids can be turned into energy through gasification. Also, biosolids can be shipped to cement kilns on the Lower Mainland for use as fuel (the Capital Regional District has been doing this).

Finally, he said, biosolids can be shipped to a biochar facility in Prince George where the carbon is sequestered and turned into a high-value end product.

But the list of alternatives didn’t resolve the issue for Area A Director Arbour.

“The question of what to do with such material is a good one, and I am not convinced that burning carbon is the best alternative either,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT THE BC MOE SAYS ABOUT BIOSOLIDS

Biosolids are residual products from sewage treatment processes that have been treated to reduce pathogens and vectors. They are primarily used as a fertilizer to promote grass growth on rangeland, for forest fertilization and for site reclamation at sites like gravel pits and mines. Biosolids are not sewage sludge.

The land application of biosolids does not pose a risk to human health or the environment when they are applied in accordance with all of the requirements in the Organic Matter Recycling Regulation. Biosolids should be handled in the same manner as animal manure; efforts should be taken to minimize the risk of accidental ingestion or body entry. The primary method of reducing risk is to limit direct exposure to biosolids.

— BC Ministry of Environment

 

CLASS B BIOSOLIDS NOT SAFE SAYS STUDY

On July 2, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concluded that there may be public health risks from using processed sewage sludge as a commercial fertilizer. Approximately 60 percent of an estimated 5.6 million tons of dry sludge is used or disposed of annually in the United States.

Sludge also includes traces of household chemicals poured down drains, detergents from washing machines, heavy metals from industry, synthetic hormones from birth control pills, pesticides, and dioxins, a group of compounds that have been linked to cancer.

— University of Georgia research

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The Week: buzzing about city annexation (don’t bet on it) and 3L logging (yeah, probably)

The Week: buzzing about city annexation (don’t bet on it) and 3L logging (yeah, probably)

Who needs a Mexican beach in January, it’s almost as warm here (not)  |  George Le Masurier photo

The Week: buzzing about city annexation (don’t bet on it) and 3L logging (yeah, probably)

By George Le Masurier

There was a lot of buzz last week about 3L Developments on-going attempt to subvert the Regional Growth Strategy in order to build 780 new houses in the Puntledge Triangle. But 3L itself generated only some of that buzz.

A group of 12 people called the Save Stotan Falls Committee triggered most of the chatter. It sprung from a full-page “advertorial” they placed in the Comox Valley Record that suggested a forward-thinking Courtenay Council would annex 3L’s property into the city. This would save millions of dollars. Increased tax revenue for Courtenay. Free land for K’omoks First Nation. Save Stotan Falls. Preserve forests.

They stopped only slightly short of guaranteeing world peace.

But the group did not mention that 3L has recently hinted at dedicating a large chunk of their land to a future convention centre — disguised as an agriplex, whatever that really means. Or that certain members of the anonymous group have promoted the centre as their personal legacy to the Comox Valley.

It’s possible that two separate purposes have aligned: If 3L gets annexed, then the good old boys get some land for their convention centre. And both are using the preservation of easy access to Stotan Falls as cover for their true intentions.

To make the scheme work, they have practically exalted the swimming hole to sacred status. It’s become a shine that commands reverence to which all else should be sacrificed. No matter that maybe five percent of the local population goes there in any given year.

So the ad created some buzz. There were rumours of a counter-petition and possibly another ad refuting the Save Stotan Falls Committee ad.

But this is all wild-eyed speculation because annexation is off the table for now.

3L Developments has not applied to the city for annexation. It would have been rejected if they had. City planners are not accepting applications for annexation at least until the current Official Community Plan review winds up.

And when the city finally formalizes a new OCP sometime next year, the smart money will bet against annexation under its new terms.

Now, the other buzz last week was about 3L sending a letter to property owners adjacent to their land. The letters said that unless the regional district reached a deal with the company to purchase the land by Jan. 21, 3L would start cutting down trees.

Reaching a multi-million dollar purchase agreement takes time. And when you’re dealing with a government that is slow-moving by nature, the two- or three-week deadline was a fantasy. More likely a PR tactic.

The company may well follow through and do some perimeter logging in a week or so, but that doesn’t preclude any eventual purchase agreement.

The letters, the full-page ad and the petition flashed brightly for a few days. But we’re back to reality now.

Sometime next week, the Comox Valley Regional District board will gather with a special mediator and listen to Comox directors complain about how they don’t like what’s happening to the Economic Development Society (EDS).

After a similar session last fall failed to pull directors into a common vision for the society’s future role, the Town of Comox asked for a formal service review. This is a legislated process to air grievances and seek resolutions. It’s also a required step before a participant such as the town can pull out of the service.

There’s no telling how long the service review might take. During the October session, it became clear that the Comox and Area C directors had one view and the rest of the board had another. There appeared to be little common ground.

Courtenay and Area A and B directors take a broader view of what constitutes economic development. For example, they see that providing affordable housing and accessible child care helps businesses attract and retain employees.

They realize that helping small local businesses create effective and competitive online sales platforms will sustain them beyond the pandemic. They believe that maintaining and expanding mountain bike infrastructure benefits businesses across the whole community.

Comox resists these new efforts. They want the EDS to help them fund a marina expansion and keep throwing the Seafood Festival party.

It may even be more personal than that. Everyone but the Comox directors think the town has benefited from EDS activities more than everyone else and to an extent that is out of proportion to their financial investment. If the EDS moves in the direction preferred by the board majority, Comox will no longer be the centre of attention.

So, it’s possible that at the end of the service review Comox will pick up its marbles and go home. Comox might choose to follow Cumberland’s lead and set up its own Economic Development office.

In our opinion, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. If each municipality had its own economic development officer and the electoral areas had their own at the regional district, they could all focus precisely on what each area needs and wants. Once a month, the four ED officers could all get together to explore ways of working together.

Or, maybe the directors will find common ground during next week’s service review. But don’t bet on it.

 

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Stotan Falls petition called “trojan horse,” 3L serves notice of logging Jan. 21

Stotan Falls petition called “trojan horse,” 3L serves notice of logging Jan. 21

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Stotan Falls petition called “trojan horse,” 3L serves notice of logging Jan. 21

By George Le Masurier

It’s a brand new year but the controversy over 3L Developments battle to build a 780-house subdivision in the Puntledge Triangle carries on.

An unknown person or group of people calling themselves the Save Stotan Falls Committee have started a petition to persuade Courtenay City Council to annex the 3L Development property.

At the same time, 3L Developments has sent letters to property owners adjacent to its 500 acres between the Puntledge and Browns rivers notifying them that the company will start logging on Jan. 21.

“Please be advised that the owner of the lands adjacent to your back yards (3L Developments) is currently attempting to sell its lands to the Comox Valley Regional District (CVRD). The purpose of this proposed transaction is to enable the CVRD to establish parkland, trails and public access to the lands and Puntledge River. However, should the CVRD fail to come to an agreement with 3L, we will be commencing with clearing and timber harvesting,” the letter states.

3L President David Dutcyvich signed the letter. He says it will take about one week to complete the land clearing.

The regional district began the process of establishing a regional park service in December that is necessary to fund and maintain large regional parks such as the Puntledge Triangle property or the Bevan Trails recreation area. But it’s unlikely that service will be functional in the next two weeks and able to meet Dutcyvich’s logging deadline.

However, not everyone considers some immediate land clearing of the property a justification for not following due process.

Area A Director Daniel Arbour told Decafnation today that “the property has already been extensively logged, and the owner is within his rights in that regard. Most landowners see themselves as stewards of their lands, but some don’t.”

Grant Gordon, a nearby resident, told Decafnation that the 3L property has already been logged several times. Gordon believes the bigger issue at stake is 3L’s assault on the Regional Growth Strategy and the community’s will to keep rural areas “rural.”

Gordon calls the Save Stotan Falls Committee petition a trojan horse.

“Because it isn’t about Saving Stotan Falls. It’s about moving real estate along the river and changing the Regional Growth Strategy, making room for more single-family housing to the detriment of more fiscally responsible infilling of existing municipal areas,” Gordon told Decafnation today.

“There is no way that more people living closer to those falls is going to be good for Stotan Falls through annexation,” he said. “If people want to Save Stotan Falls then they should lobby their provincial government to get back control of the riverways granted to the E&N Railway in 1879.”

Gordon is urging people not to sign the petition, which is also up on the Change.org website.

He said the petition may be well-intentioned, “but it basically demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of the RGS and if it was successful it would condemn any natural component of Stotan Falls due to destruction. It would also set back the infilling initiatives of other developers that are occurring now due to the restrictions created by the RGS.”

Decafnation reached out to Dave Mellin, a retired Courtenay business person, who has made presentations to the regional district board and Courtenay council about saving Stotan Falls. We asked if he was behind the petition.

He declined to comment for this story.

The petition reads, “Please read and sign this petition and join us in convincing Courtenay City Council to annex the 3L Development Lands into the City of Courtenay, dramatically reducing the size of the development and saving the 300 acres around Stotan Falls for generations to come! This land will be donated to the community and is worth $14 million- $16 million dollars!

“This key addition to the Puntledge River Greenway offers recreation access for swimming, hiking, mountain biking, walking, fishing, salmon enhancement, white water kayaking, palaeontology, and bird watching just to name a few.

“This would make Stotan Falls the fourth largest park in the Comox Valley. This aligns with a major goal of the 20-year Regional Growth Strategy for the Comox Valley…”to protect, steward and enhance the health of the natural environment and ecological connections”. – that we ALL share.”

A lively discussion on various social media pages speculates that the anonymous petition organizers may be working on behalf of 3L, as their latest attempt to push the Riverwood subdivision through local governments.

If the petition is presented to the City of Courtenay, the venue of the debate will shift from the regional district to City Council but the arguments may remain the same: amend the Regional Growth Strategy or not.

Area A Director Arbour says Courtenay councillors will have to consider the broader implications.

“Annexing the lands into the City of Courtenay may risk more urban sprawl and a threat to agricultural and forestry lands. All the jurisdictions would still have to come together to consider the implications on the Regional Growth Strategy,” he said. “Courtenay would also have to consider how this fits in relation to their new OCP, which appears to favour densification.”

In a comment on Facebook, another nearby resident, Lisa Benard Christensen said, “That petition has little to do with saving the falls. From the comments of the people signing. I would think they do not know what they are asking for. They do not understand what it means for Courtenay to annex the lands. That annexation would come at a huge cost.

“We would be telling developers we don’t hold to our hard-won long term plans, that we don’t mind urban sprawl long before areas that are easier to provide transit and services to are infilled.

“It would take away from the rural feel of the area, allowing a concentrated block of 1000+ families and their guests and pets to take it over.

“Anyone that thinks that tiny falls recreation area could withstand that influx let alone still have room for the nostalgic outsiders to enjoy it is kidding themselves.

“This petition is basically a Trojan horse. A flashy statement meant to appeal to people’s nostalgia and their frustration at being denied access. It encourages a snap decision, hoping they don’t read too much into what annexation would actually do to the area.

“The best way to save the falls is to hold strong to our RGS and not allow this urban sprawl to occur. The price is too high. Don’t believe the illusion, research fully before you sign anything. Much is at stake here.”

Area C Director Edwin Grieve said the regional district is looking into resurrecting the regional parks service that was never rescinded but has been on mothballs for 25 years. 

“Everything moves at the laborious “speed of government” so it all takes time but, once the parks service bylaw is active, it is possible for the CVRD to go to the Municipal Financial Authority and borrow money at a very low-interest rate over an extended period against that,” he told Decafnation.

“Dave (Mellin) and the boys are correct in realizing that any development south of the Puntledge River would be in Courtenay’s settlement expansion area and it clearly says in the RGS that “services would be extended through annexation into the Municipality,” he said. “Once the land is out of the Electoral Area, the 4-hectare minimum lot size and many more restrictive regulations could cease to apply.”

This article has been updated to include Director Grieve’s comments and to correct that he referred to Dave Mellin.

 

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The Week: Save 58% on the ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ gifts, and other useless information

The Week: Save 58% on the ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ gifts, and other useless information

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The Week: Save 58% on the ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ gifts, and other useless information

By George Le Masurier

Decafnation has searched high and low for some good news this holiday season. And we found it! The 2020 Christmas Price Index has dropped 58.5 percent over last year. Wait, is that good news?

It will cost $22,825.45 less to purchase all the items named in “The 12 Days of Christmas” song this year. The PNC Financial Services Group prices the items every year as a measure of the economy.

The 12 items will cost $16,168.14 this year ($38,993.59 in 2019). Most of the decrease came from the “cancellations of many live performances. It’s a silent night at most symphonies and the lights have dimmed for many dancers this holiday season, which contributes to the year-over-year decline.”

Partridge in a Pear Tree — $210.18 (0.0% change)
Two turtle doves — $450.00 (+50.0%)
Three French hens — $210.00 (+15.7)
Four calling birds — $599.96 (0.0%)
Five golden rings – $945.00 (+14.5%)
Six geese-a-laying — $570.00 (+35.7%)
Seven swans-a-swimming — $13,125 (0.0%)
Eight maids-a-milking — $58.00 (0.0%)
Nine ladies dancing — Not available in 2020
Ten lords-a-leaping — Not available in 2020
Eleven pipers piping — Not available in 2020
Twelve drummers drumming — Not available in 2020
Total — $16,168.14 or $105,561.80 if you count all the repetitions in the song

 

Some of the dream gifts we hope are under the Comox Valley tree this year include a COVID vaccination for everyone, a regional parks service, a transformed Economic Development service that actually helps all local businesses (not just a special few), fully-functional laboratories in the Courtenay and Campbell River (restored onsite pathologist services), municipal governments with a heightened climate change mentality that results in action on rainwater management, traffic improvements at the 17th Street Bridge, a BC Supreme Court victory for the Mack Laing Heritage Society and an enlightened Comox Council.

 

But here’s a gift you can give yourself: Passes to the 30th edition of the World Community Film Festival, virtual edition. This year, you can watch films from the comfort of your home at any time during the festival. Audience members can purchase festival passes or tickets for individual films and decide when to watch, in any order, from Feb. 5 through Feb. 13.

It’s “your festival, your way,” says Programmer Janet Fairbanks. “We are excited to be offering a great lineup of international documentary films addressing social and environmental justice, LGBTQ+, Indigenous issues, food security, climate change, music and arts. Bonus features will include interviews with filmmakers and other resource people.

 

This tree that kept on giving … for two years. A high school teacher in Scotland kept the same Christmas tree up and decorated from 2007 to 2009. After a friend kidded him about still having his tree up by Twelfth Night, he decided to leave it up … for more than 750 days.

 

From our collection of Lame Christmas jokes, which are not only for kids.

Q: What did Adam say on the day before Christmas?
A: It’s Christmas, Eve!

Q: How do you make an idiot laugh on boxing day?
A: Tell him a joke on Christmas Eve!

Q: What do you have in December that you don’t have in any other month?
A: The letter “D”!

Q: What does Father Christmas suffer from if he gets stuck in a chimney?
A: Santa Claustrophobia!

Q: What do you call a letter sent up the chimney on Christmas Eve?
A: Blackmail!

Q: Who delivers a cat’s Christmas presents?
A: Santa Paws!

Q: Why does Father Christmas go down the chimney?
A: Because it soots him!

Q: Who delivers elephants’ Christmas presents?
A: Elephanta Claus!

Q: Why is Santa like a bear on Christmas Eve?
A: Because he’s Sooty!

Q: What is the best Christmas present in the world?
A: A broken drum, you just can’t beat it!

 

Our favourite Christmas quote:

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more!” –Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

Happy Holidays

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Contemplation in action — a friend remembers Father Charles Brandt

Contemplation in action — a friend remembers Father Charles Brandt

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Contemplation in action — a friend remembers Father Charles Brandt

BY BRUCE WITZEL

Father Charles Brandt occasionally liked to quote his fellow monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The Buddhist teacher once was asked what we needed to do to save our world. “What we most need to do,” he replied, “is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.”

How do we then respond to this call of the Earth’s cry, the people’s groaning? In this unprecedented moment of history — a worldwide pandemic coupled with increasing forest fires, floods, superstorms and mass migration of the Climate Emergency —doing nothing can no longer be an option.

Charles Brandt has left us many hints. His gifts and example of contemplation amidst action may well be an essential guide for us in echoing and raising our own voices.

“Where does contemplation lead one? Since it finds the Ground of Love in all reality, it leads to one’s sisters and brothers — it creates social consciousness, it leads to a deeper unity and love with and for the earth. Contemplation leads to transformation.”  ~ Father Charles Brandt

It’s been two months now since Father Charles Brandt died — just three months ago, I last saw him alive. He was in good spirits as we sat on the porch of the hermitage overlooking his beloved Oyster River. “There is hardly a portion of her banks from the estuary to the snows that I have not travelled by foot,” he wrote in 1972. “Her music, her rhythm is a background to my life and work.” I was just a teenager then.

My father, Mac Witzel, befriended Charles upon his arrival to Vancouver Island in 1964. Or maybe it was the other way around. Charles had become a member of the newly formed Hermits of St. John the Baptist who lived alongside the Tsolum River. As we now know, not long afterwards the river was terribly poisoned by the copper mine up on Mount Washington.

Antelope Canyon, Utah | Father Charles Brandt photo

The group of hermits were quite poor and lived in roughhewn cabins — true to 60’s I think. Many local people were initially dubious of them, these non-conformists. Who were these monks struggling in the woods? Shouldn’t they pray in a monastery?

The hermits disbanded within a few years and most of them moved away. Charles was one of the exceptions. A wealthy benefactor helped Charles obtain 27 acres of land by the Oyster River which had been logged a couple of decades earlier.

His cabin was loaded onto a flatbed trailer and moved to its new site. My father was foreman of the local BC Highways Department and helped during the process. At one point the posts on the bridge across the Tsolum River blocked the cabin’s passage. They were cut shorter to let it through — “No one ever knew,” Charles later admitted.

~~~~

During those years as a youngster, I barely saw or knew of Fr. Charles Brandt. He was a hermit after-all. Our friendship really began years later during the 1980s at a weekend meditation retreat that he led on Spirituality and the Environment.

“Follow your bliss” he said while conveying the comparative religious thought of Joseph Campbell. In explaining deep ecology, social ecology, integral ecology and cosmology Fr. Charles spoke about Fritjof Capra, Simone Weil, Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme.

The retreat eventually helped me to make a decision to leave my well-paying job on the booms of the Port Alice pulp mill. For eight months I went to live and work with the poor in the mountains of Mexico. “What can privileged people do to help?” I asked the local Padre. “First, pray,” he said. “Secondly, don’t use more than you need to — thirdly, defend the human rights of the poor.”

Work was at the base community level with campesino farmers, health workers, and other local organizers. We discussed Liberation Theology during training workshops about helping with people’s nutritional needs or even pouring concrete together. We promoted alternative methods of cooking by building solar ovens or efficient “rocket stoves” with local carpenters.

According to the World Health Organization an estimated 2.4 billion people, generally among the world’s poorest, rely on biomass like wood or dung for their heating or cooking needs. Solid fuel dependency exacerbates deforestation and climate change. Breathing interior smoke is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.6 million people annually. More than half of these deaths occur among children under five years of age.

~~~~

Over the next 30 years I cherished occasional visits with Charles when I travelled to Comox Valley. My wife Francis once said to me when I was feeling down, “why don’t you call Charles?” Another time he described to me verbatim, the Buddhist eight-fold path. This was the essence of Charles Brandt —clearheaded sage wisdom magnified by his caring soul and quiet calm presence.

Charles loved the world and its creatures. He was an expert birder and had assisted setting up the renowned bird recording lab at Cornell University in the late 1940s. He believed that the poor and disparaged of the earth included all these creatures and we need to reaffirm the dignity of the poor, human and non-human.

The strong connection Charles made with many people who knew and loved him was this — a common care for the earth and its people — oneness with the Sacramental Commons, as Charles put it. Yet in spite of this steadfast believe and his gentleness, Charles was never one to suffer fools gladly. Although he rarely displayed it, his critique could be quick and sharp. His vocation was clearly prophetic — somewhat like his mentor the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who once wrote — “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.”

Such was the person of Father Charles Brandt.

~~~~

Now on that crisp fall September day a few months ago, here I was sitting with Father Charles and a mutual friend, Willa Cannon. As a retired nurse, Willa with her husband Jim helped Charles in a myriad of ways. Their earlier work together with the Tsolum River Restoration Society had bonded their goodwill.

The annual meeting of the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society had been delayed for months because of COVID 19 protocols. Though we had the support of at least a dozen friends, Charles called for the meeting to be small — only three of us. We began with making clarifications about the direction of the Society. Charles wanted to put more emphasis on contemplative prayer and he spoke of the need to be conscious that “Only the Sense of the Sacred can Save Us.”

It was agreed to add this to our vision. It follows as thus: 

The Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society seeks to fulfil the explicit wishes of Father Charles Brandt, that: The forest and house of the Hermitage is to be preserved as a peaceful centre for contemplating the spiritual foundations of ecology and nature as a sacred commons, and as a home for a designated Catholic hermit or other contemplative person dedicated to the environment and a life of contemplative prayer, who shares this vision.

The human community and the natural world will go forward into the future as a single sacred community or we will perish in the desert. Only the sense of the sacred can save us.

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We then briefly discussed the land conservancy for the forest and hermitage that had been put in place with the Comox Valley Land Trust in January 2019. In this regards, Charles expressed his gratitude for the work of two of our early directors, biologists Kathryn Jones and Loys Maingon. Then Charles affirmed the person called to be the new contemplative resident at the hermitage — Karen Nichols, a Benedictine Oblate.

Charles told us how Karen had helped years before archiving the library of Bernard de Aguiar upon his death. Bernard had been an assistant to Thomas Merton before becoming one of the original Hermits of St. John. He later became a potter on Hornby Island. Karen’s mother had been a conservationist and passed that value onto her. Her mandate will be to archive Charles’ extensive files and continue on — in Karen’s words — for the hermitage to be “a place of prayer and meditation and of conservation awareness”.

As our meeting closed Charles reached across the table to shake my hand. I reminded him we weren’t supposed to. He grinned and attempted an elbow bump but the table blocked us. With folded hands, I bowed to Charles, and then he to me. Without a word, each of us knew — the Sacred in me recognizes the Sacred in you.

These were my final moments with frater Charles A.E. Brandt.

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Only 10 days later Charles fell at the hermitage. He emailed people for help, if you can imagine that. A neighbour came over along with another friend who is a retired doctor, Bruce Wood. During many of Charles’ last 19 days in the hospital, Willa Cannon was often with him. Not long before losing consciousness he reached out and took Willa’s little hands and engulfed them with-in his. The last embrace of a dying man — he gave of himself, as always. Father Charles Brandt was true to his Christian faith to the last.

Bruce Witzel wrote this article on behalf of the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society in the hope to continue on with the work and gifts Charles has left us. He is a co-director and chairperson of the society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FATHER CHARLES OYSTER RIVER HERMITAGE LANDS PROTECTED WITH COVENANT

The Comox Valley Land Trust (CVLT) holds a conservation covenant over 27-acres of wild land on the banks of the Oyster River. The land was the home of spiritual leader and conservationist Father Charles Brandt, 95, who asked the CVLT to protect the mature forest and riparian areas for future generations. Father Charles died earlier this fall.

 
 
 

Father Charles Brandt, or “Father Charles,” had lived in his hermitage on the 27-acres bordering the Oyster River since 1970. As the first ordained Catholic priest-hermit in two centuries, he asked the CVLT to hold conservation covenant over the property to safeguard the values of conservation and ecological stewardship.

“The covenant will ensure that these mature forests and riparian areas, as well as the plants and wildlife that call them home, are protected for future generations in perpetuity,” says Tim Ennis, executive director of CVLT.

Father Charles donated the land to the CVRD as parkland (allowing pedestrian-only public access). A registered society will lease back the hermitage building for use by a contemplative individual to carry on in the priest-hermit’s tradition.

“We must fall in love with the Earth, and we only save what we love,” says Father Charles. “It is my deep love of contemplation and communion with the natural world that has led me to act in its defense.”

Funding required to complete the project was generously provided by Judy Hager (in memory of Bob Hager), the Oyster River Enhancement Society, members of the Tsolum River Restoration Society, and other local community members. 

— adapted from the Comox Valley Lands Trust website

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