God’s little joke: How Glenda Ferris became Houston’s environmental pioneer

Glenda Ferris won key environmental victories after the 1981 spill at Equity Mine. Today, she looks to B.C.'s pipelines plan with alarm.

Glenda and Hap Ferris stand outside a recent open house held by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office to review the proposed Pacific Trails Pipeline.

Glenda and Hap Ferris stand outside a recent open house held by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office to review the proposed Pacific Trails Pipeline.

Glenda Ferris heard it on the radio.

“I was in the kitchen, actually baking bread and ironing,” she says. Her sons were at school, and her husband Hap was working in the Northwood mill. It was Nov. 18, 1981.

At around 11 a.m., on came the news—a spill at Equity Mine.

“They spilled 10,000 gallons of concentrated sulphuric acid down our watershed, in the middle of the night,” she says. “By afternoon they were telling people living on Buck Creek not to drink the water.”

Ferris has lived on Buck Creek for more than 40 years.

She was 26 when she started hauling water from the creek into the remodelled barn where she and Hap decided to raise their two young sons.

“We wanted wild,” she says, smiling.

Even in busy San Diego, where she and Hap met in a school choir, the two had pioneered a grassroots way to live.

Hap & Glenda’s was San Diego’s biggest natural foods store in the 1960s, stocked with organic avocados and other fresh produce that the young couple sourced with help from people like Leonard Richardson.

“He got his manure from horses at the racetrack,” Ferris said, laughing. “That meant no drugs, no nothing in all of the compost.”

Although her parents had liberal ideas, raising her to reject the widespread racism of 1960s America, Ferris said they were “livid” when she and Hap got active in the civil rights movement, joined street protests against the war in Vietnam, and organized pickets against U.S. Navy pollution in San Diego Bay.

“We lived our principles,” she said. “Our parents spoke them.”

By 1970, Ferris said she and Hap were ready to sell their store and focus on raising a family. They looked north, bought some 100 mail-order maps of the B.C. backcountry, and settled on Pemberton or Smithers.

But once in Canada, Ferris said they quickly saw what resort towns Pemberton and Whistler would be. And Smithers was all farmland and barbed-wire fences.

It wasn’t until a real-estate friend drove she and Hap up the Buck Flats Road that they found what they were looking for—forests, a dirt driveway, and a creek swimming with fish. They settled into the barn, Hap started at Northwood, and in a few years they moved further up Buck Flats into a log home that they built by hand.

So it was no small irony to Ferris when Equity Mine started spilling acid just a few kilometres east of her home.

“God’s little joke,” she says, shaking her head as she points out the distance on a map.

Ferris has seen a lot of maps since that day—maps that show topography, watercourses, forestry roads and mine plans.

Days after the Equity spill, she found herself in the Smithers Ministry of Environment office, digging through boxes of maps, charts and mines inspection reports.

She soon found that Equity had a bigger than a spill. Exposed to too much air and running water, waste rock at the mine site was creating acid regularly.

“Acid rock drainage” was a term that Ferris had to look up and photocopy from a hard-bound encyclopedia. She took it to Terry Roberts, a chemical engineer with the Ministry of Environment.

Roberts told her that inspectors had known for months that Equity’s waste rock was a problem, but given how the mine was built, he said it couldn’t be completely sealed off. They would simply have to treat the runoff.

Ferris said she didn’t believe it. She and other environmentalists campaigned hard, digging up early inspection reports from BC Research Labs that had raised the acid issue before Equity was built. They faxed materials to the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail, determined they could get the mine rebuilt.

“After a year, I realized that we couldn’t fix it,” she said. “But I knew too much, and I couldn’t turn my back.”

In 1982, Ferris helped create a Public Advisory Committee for Equity Mine, which still meets today. In 1985, things turned again after she went to Smithers meeting on an Equity waste handling plan.

“There were engineers sitting there, saying things that were an absolute falsehood—that they could recontour the Equity site and there would be no more acidity coming out of it,” she said.

“I thought, ‘I know more than those guys know,’ and it isn’t just about the Equity site. They don’t know anything about oxygen diffusion or convection, or about flow paths through waste rock dumps,” she said.

Ferris began to speak up on technical issues at other mines projects. Together with Allan Young and other environmentalists, she founded a group called B.C. Environmental Mining Council.

“That was it,” she said. “That was the thin red line for technical assessment.”

Although she was unpaid, Ferris said she got a lot of help from environment officials and was paid to travel to meetings of the Northwest Mine Development Review Committee. In 1986, she won the B.C. Minister’s Award for Environmental Achievement.

By the mid 1990s, Ferris was helping on the site plan for the new Huckleberry Mine and consulting on dozens of other mines, forestry and land-use plans for First Nations. She advised on the security provisions and post-closure plans for the B.C. Mines Act, and contributed to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

Health problems have since forced Ferris to slow down her campaign work, but she said there’s also been a shift in how much citizens can take part in the technical side of project reviews.

“It was different in the old days,” she said. “Now, there’s a lot more money, it’s much more corporate. People like me are basically ignored.

“At the end of the day, you really need a person with a PhD—it’s the the only person that anyone listens to anymore.”

Thirty years after the Equity spill, Ferris and Hap still live on Buck Creek.

So do several moose, a grizzly bear, and geese that shelter up by her house when there’s a fire.

Equity is still in the neighbourhood, and Ferris regularly meets with mines manager Mike Aziz (“A good man,” she says), and other members of the advisory committee to monitor the water there.

But today, in 2012, Ferris says more serious changes are coming to her home at the end of the Buck Flats Road.

Enbridge is proposing to build twin pipelines that will carry bitumen and oil condensate across the Buck and the Bulkley. Apache Canada is leading the KSL project to build a natural gas line along a similar route.

“People don’t realize that KSL is the first step in a new B.C. energy corridor,” Ferris said. “There’s going to be a complete transformation of our forest-managed landscapes into an industrial-chemical landscape.”

At a recent open house, Ferris challenged Apache officials on their traffic, wildlife and wildfire-protection plans.

“I still love it—this shredded, damaged place,” she explained. “I’m not going to go anywhere, and I’m going to stand up and say what I know. Very few others are going to say it in the right way because they don”t live here.”

 

Just Posted

Jill Mackenzie carefully replaces books on the shelves at the Houston Public Library. (Angelique Houlihan photo)
District approves annual library grant

Craft kits featured for summer reading club

The tradition of Houston Christian School grads giving Bibles to incoming kindergarten students will take place this year, but outdoors and in a modified fashion. (File photo)
Houston Christian School grad day is June 24

Grads themselves have set tone for the day, says teacher

Scott Richmond will be starting as the new vice principal for HSS and TSE. (Submitted/Houston Today)
Houston gets a new vice principal

Scott Richmond takes over from Dwayne Anderson who moved to Smithers

A Pacific Salmon Foundation grant of $3,000 is going towards the tree plantations. (Cindy Verbeek photo/Houston Today)
550 trees planted in Houston through A Rocha

Houston Christian School students and volunteers help with the tree planting

Currently the Houston station has 16 paramedics, two ambulances and one community paramedic vehicle. (File photo)
Retirement of longtime paramedics worries Houston community

“No loss of service,” assures BC Emergency Health Services

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

The first suspension bridge is the tallest in Canada, with a second suspension bridge just below it. The two are connected by a trail that’s just over 1 km. (Claire Palmer photo)
PHOTOS: The highest suspension bridges in Canada just opened in B.C.

The Skybridge in Golden allows visitors to take in views standing at 130 and 80 metres

BC Green Party leader and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau introduced a petition to the provincial legislature on Thursday calling for the end of old-growth logging in the province. (File photo)
BC Green leader Furstenau introduces old-growth logging petition

Party calls for the end of old-growth logging as protests in Fairy Creek continue

B.C. Premier John Horgan leaves his office for a news conference in the legislature rose garden, June 3, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. premier roasted for office budget, taxing COVID-19 benefits

Youth addiction law that triggered election hasn’t appeared

A vial containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is shown at a vaccination site in Marcq en Baroeul, outside Lille, northern France, Saturday, March 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michel Spingler
mRNA vaccines ‘preferred’ for all Canadians, including as 2nd dose after AstraZeneca: NACI

New recommendations prioritizes Pfizer, Moderna in almost all cases

Most Read