Toxic runoff from drug lab worries neighbours

For years, the water ran clear and clean down through the quiet neighbourhood south of 72nd Avenue on the Willoughby Slope.

Three years ago, longtime residents like Trevor Lassam and Diana and Tom Sampson first noticed the smell.

“The septic smell would come in waves,” said Diana, a resident on 207 Street north of 68th Avenue.

You could walk up and down the quiet street and some days there was nothing, other days the smell was horrendous, said her husband Tom.

At the same time, the water in the ditches leaking from a property just to their north, up the slope, began to leave a dark brown residue, like iron oxide, on the rocks and plants.

“I thought there was a sewage leak up on their property,” said Lassam.

He also dug out a bizarre gusher of black, tarry goo that came up on the edge of his property once. There was a weekly smell in the air, like licorice, that hadn’t been there before.

Various neighbours complained several times, and agencies like Fraser Health came out and tested the water to no avail, the Sampson’s and Lassam agree. 

They were looking for sewage, and testing for high coliform counts, but they never found any.

The truth would be revealed when Surrey RCMP, following up on an investigation that started in their city, raided a home on 72nd Avenue in April. They found a sizeable and sophisticated ecstasy lab, and carted away barrel after barrel of chemicals.

The drug makers had simply been flushing the waste from their work straight out the back of a shed on the property. From there, it had worked its way down the slope, killing off blackberry bushes and leaving puddles of water slick with chemical residue.

Now Lassam and the Sampsons want to know exactly what is in their water and soil – and they aren’t getting answers from the government.

On May 2, the provincial Ministry of the Enviroment contacted the neighbours and warned them that there could be contamination.

“The property owner of 20668 72 Ave has been made aware of their obligations to meet the Provincial legal requirements of the Contaminated sites Regulation,” the letter said.

The owners of the land, who had apparently rented the home to the drug makers, would have to hire professionals to identify any impacted properties and mitigate the contamination. 

“For the interim, as a precaution and until proper analysis can be completed, it is recommended that you keep children; pets and other people occupying your property clear from the adjacent land and surface water drainage systems and not use any wells,” the letter said.

When the neighbours contacted Langley Township, they were told the same thing.

A June 18 email from the Township’s building department said that an environmental company had been hired, and testing was underway.

“If during this process it is identified that potential off-site contamination has occurred, affected properties will be notified by the responsible party,” said an email from the Township.

Yet the neighbours say no one has spoken to them.

“They never checked my property, they never checked the property next door,” said Lassam.

Some testing and cleanup work has been done on the drug lab site.

Large white tarps are spread across an area just to the south of the former lab, and a layer of soil was removed, according to neighbours.

The neighbourhood is on municipal water and doesn’t use wells, which the residents say is very fortunate. However, they are worried about their soil, and anything that grows in it.

Lassam has given up on having a garden for this year.

“I’m worried about it,” he said.

Lassam, who lives directly to the south of the former drug lab, says a row of hedges along the edge of his property is starting to die off. The smell is still there in the ditches, especially after it rains.

“The concern is, when the rains start,” said Diana. “Nothing’s been cleaned up.”

Children play in the ditches farther down the slope, and some of the water heads into a retention pond for one of the newer developments to the south.

Testing should have been done further down in the ditches and on private property, the neighbours say.

They still don’t know exactly what was in the chemical waste flushed out the back of the drug lab. The Ministry of the Environment provided a list of the chemicals found in the lab, but those were raw materials, not byproducts and waste.

“You don’t know what it does for people 20 years down the line,” said Diana.

While government agencies initially responded to emails and phone calls, the neighbours say since about June they’ve been getting fewer responses. It feels like they’re getting stonewalled, said Lassam.

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