Contaminated soil plan raises concerns
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Updated on Shawnigan Contaminated Soil Battle
Update on Shawnigan Contaminated Soil Battle
Two years ago, the people of Shawnigan Lake were informed of a proposed plan to turn a quarry, located on Stebbings road, at the top end of the Shawnigan watershed, into a contaminated soil site.
The proposal would allow South Island Aggregates (SIA), a gravel company, to bring in 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil each year for 50 years and dump it on their site, while still operating as an active quarry. The contaminants listed in the permit include dioxins, furans, phenols, hydrocarbons, arsenic, lead, chlrorides, and a myriad of other toxins and chemicals known to be harmful to human health.
The people of Shawnigan were united and vocal in their resistance to this plan, but their opposition has been consistently and steadfastly ignored.
In March 2012, the Ministry of Environment issued a draft permit. More than 300 people took the time to send written submissions that highlighted the potentially negative environmental, health, social, and economic impacts of this proposed site. The CVRD, the CRD, the Cowichan Tribes, VIHA, and the Provincial Health Minister all added their voices to the opposition. The Ministry of Environment’s Statutory Decision Maker, Hubert Bunce, found none of these concerns to be compelling.
In August 2013, the Ministry issued the permit. The CVRD, the Shawnigan Residents Association (SRA), and three Shawnigan are residents, John and Lois Hayes, and Rick Saunders, immediately filed appeals. Hearings were scheduled for March and a stay was issued, preventing SIA from bringing in contaminated soil until after the hearings.
In December 2013, SIA applied for a variance on the stay, and in February 2014 the Environmental Appeal Board (EAB) allowed them to bring in 40 tonnes of contaminated soil before the hearings commenced. (During the hearings, we learned that in their sworn affidavit, the owners of SIA provided misleading information to the EAB – they claimed, for example, that their water treatment system was operational. It was not.)
There were twenty days of hearings scheduled for March. In the end, the hearings lasted 32 days, with additional dates in April, May, June, and July added as it became apparent that the volume of evidence required more time. The SRA and CVRD brought in numerous expert witnesses including geologists, hydro-geologists, engineers, and a water treatment specialist. The experts agreed that the information presented by SIA’s engineers, Active Earth, was inaccurate, insufficient, and at times misleading. One expert, on the record, commenting on the proposed site stated, “this is crazy.”
Active Earth, the engineers whose survey and design of the site formed the basis upon which the Ministry of Environment issued the permit, did not testify during the hearings. Indeed, there were no experts testifying on behalf of SIA to defend the site or the plans. In their defence, only Marty Block, co-owner, appeared. During his testimony, it was revealed that the only public support of the project, which came from the Malahat Nation, was agreed to in a confidential agreement between the two parties. Mr Block denied that such an agreement existed, until the document itself was entered into evidence by the SRA lawyers. In exchange for their support, Malahat was promised a “330 excavator and qualified operator for up to 7 weeks” as well as services of SIA engineers to address drainage issues, road grading and compacting services, and preferential employment for Malahat members at the SIA site.
It was also revealed that SIA owed Active Earth $540,000. This of course raised questions about the Active Earth reports, given they had considerable financial ties to SIA and an interest in the outcome of the permit process.
It is impossible to condense 32 days of hearings, but some of the most pertinent details were highlighted during the closing arguments.
Most importantly, the experts who testified were unanimous in their concerns about the location of this proposed contaminated soil site. It became clear that this is indeed an inappropriate site for this type of dump, and that the contaminants present a clear risk, not just to the environment but to the long-term safety of the drinking water. It also became clear that in the process of granting this permit, the protocols for selecting a site for contaminated soil were ignored.
Secondly, the Statutory Decision Maker (SDM) for the Ministry of Environment, Hubert Bunce, failed to do his duty. Not only did he not once visit the site before issuing the permit in August 2013, but he also did not live up to a number of his responsibilities as outlined in the Ministry’s SDM Handbook. Some of the responsibilities that he did not fulfill included ensuring that the process was transparent, consistent, and fair; having in-depth knowledge and specialized expertise; consulting with First Nations (Bunce did not respond to the Cowichan opposition to this proposal); addressing public concerns; verifying the accuracy of information and reliability of the experts; and assessing the current compliance and performance as well as the financial stability of the applicant.
Finally, as the hearings progressed, we learned of the questionable practices of SIA. They are currently operating as a quarry under a Ministry of Mines permit, and there have been instances of non-compliance with this permit in the past. These include possibly blasting below the water table level as well as blasting onto neighbouring CVRD parkland. And as the lawyer for the Shawnigan Residents Association pointed out in his closing arguments, Marty Block committed perjury while under oath at the EAB hearings. What does that tell about the suitability of this operator to reliably oversee a self-regulating permit?
The evidence against this proposal has been overwhelming. The notion of putting the drinking water of 12,000 people at risk for the benefit of one business is insane.
The EAB panel has promised to be efficient in its decision-making. We do not know when the ruling will be issued. We do know that if they choose to uphold the permit, we will choose to continue to fight it. The next step is a judicial appeal.
The Shawnigan Lake community is now holding its breath, hoping for the outcome they have fought for so passionately for the last two years.
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This is the true, and at times unbelievable, story of a community fighting for its future. The ending of this story has not yet been written, but for the people of Shawnigan Lake, the only acceptable ending is one in which five million tonnes of contaminated soil are not dumped in their watershed.
This story begins in May 2012, when the community received notification that South Island Aggregates was applying for a permit from the Environment Ministry to accept 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year for 50 years at its gravel mine site on Stebbings Road. The mine is on a hillside above the south end of Shawnigan Lake. Shawnigan Creek, the main feeder creek to the lake, runs directly through the SIA property. The lake provides drinking water for 7,000 Shawnigan residents.
More than 200 local residents attended a public information meeting in May 2012, and about 350 people attended a public meeting in July 2012. At these meetings, the opposition to the plan presented by SIA was almost unanimous, with only two parties voicing support: a woman named Nikki (later revealed to be SIA owner Marty Block’s daughter) and Michael Harry, the chief of the Malahat First Nation.
The greatest concern to the people is the threat to the drinking water; the contaminants listed in the permit include dioxins, furans, phenols and a myriad other toxins and chemicals known to be harmful to human health.
The people of Shawnigan Lake were supposed to be reassured by the claim made by Jeff Taylor from Active Earth, the engineering company hired by SIA, that their watershed would be protected by a 76-metre layer of “virtually impermeable bedrock” underneath the site.
The middle of the story has been tragically predictable. Despite the overwhelming resistance in the community and the opposition expressed directly to the Ministry of Environment, the ministry issued the permit on Aug. 21, 2013. Among the list of opponents were the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the Capital Regional District, MP Jean Crowder, MLA Bill Routley, provincial Liberal candidate Steve Housser along with candidates for all the other parties, the Vancouver Island Health Authority and provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall. In all, there were 300 written submission to the ministry raising concerns related to the potentially negative environmental, health and social impacts.
Now we are in the third act. The Shawnigan Residents’ Association and the CVRD, along with local residents John and Lois Hayes and Rick Saunders have filed appeals to the Environmental Appeal Board. Lawyers representing the SIA, as well as lawyers for the Ministry of Environment, are defending the permit.
We have learned a great deal during the six weeks of EAB hearings, confirming many fears of Shawnigan residents.
We’ve learned that there is no “virtually impermeable bedrock” under the site. Instead, there is indeed an aquifer and fractured bedrock, with significant movement of water through the rock. Eight independent geo-scientists and engineers testified about the project, all saying there was inadequate information about the site and a disturbing lack of planning.
We’ve learned from engineer Lalith Liyanage, who assessed the water-treatment facilities at SIA, that it is a “water treatment design that raises a lot of questions and some fairly significant doubts as to whether it can successfully handle the scale of water contamination that it may have to address under both operating and post-closure conditions.”
In a community where opposition has been overwhelming, we have learned that the only public support that SIA received, which was from the Malahat First Nation, was cemented in a “confidential agreement” between the two parties, which provided for a list of expensive favours from the SIA in return for the Malahat support.
Environment Ministry Mary Polak, referring to the sewage treatment plan for Victoria, has stated that she will not force a project on to an unwilling community. We in Shawnigan intend to hold her to that.
The hearings will continue this week. If the EAB panel chooses to revoke the permit, it will be an ending to this story that the people of Shawnigan Lake will celebrate. If the panel chooses to uphold the permit, the people of this small community, who have raised more than $200,000 for legal fees, will appeal the ruling. To give up this fight — a fight for clean, drinkable water — would be to give up on the future of Shawnigan Lake.
Sonia Furstenau is a high school teacher at Dwight School in Shawnigan Lake.
Global TV coverage of a letter-writing event organized by Sonia:
Shawnigan brings soil dump battle to Victoria
One year ago, 18-year-old Johannes Bodendorfer was a high school student living in his native Austria.
This morning he was in Victoria taking a passionate stand for his adopted new home as part of a crowd estimated at between 500 and 600 people.
Bodendorfer joined about 40 other Dwight International School students, dozens of Shawnigan Lake residents and the entire population of Shawnigan Lake School on the legislature lawn to send a clear message to the provincial government: don’t put contaminated soil in a community watershed.
“I really want to emphasize the fact the community seems to be growing in strength and unity,” Dwight teacher Sonia Furstenau told the News Leader Pictorial from the scene. “The message was very clear and straight: putting (contaminated soil in a watershed) is a terrible idea.”
Spurred by a significant public outcry, the Cowichan Valley Regional District and the Shawnigan Residents Association are appealing an August Ministry of Environment decision to allow South Island Aggregates to import up to five million tonnes of contaminated soil for treatment and storage in its Stebbings Road quarry.
Today’s event grew from an idea at Shawnigan Lake School into something that involved the entire community.
A series of speakers took turns making the community’s point in a variety of ways. They included Cowichan Valley MLA Bill Routley, Cowichan Valley B.C. Liberal Constituency president Steve Housser, SRA president Calvin Cook, Shawnigan Lake Director Bruce Fraser and NDP leader Adrian Dix — who pointed to the room where cabinet was meeting so the crowd could deliver its message to the right spot.
But Furstenau was particularly pleased with the impact of the message delivered by the three student speakers: Bodendorfer, Dwight’s Madeleine Corwin and Cecil Ash from SLS.
“They said “this is a decision being made by people who won’t have to live with the consequences,’” she said.
Bodenborfer said he would not have pictured himself in that spot one year ago. But he’s done his research on the issue. And after living in Shawnigan, growing to love the lake and observing the passion residents have for their community, he now can’t picture himself standing idly by.
“I was blown away by the strong sense of community in Shawnigan,” he said. “In Europe we don’t have that. I was just amazed.”
Furstenau believes the rally will bring this issue to the attention of more people outside of Cowichan and help them understand it could affect more than one community.
“I think that with the media coverage it will start to do that. It’s not just Shawnigan; the aquifers could be connected.”
And the attention the rally will draw could force cabinet to listen.
“We all know that in the end they can make the final decision on this.”
The Environmental Appeal board hearing in Victoria has been ongoing all month. It is expected to wrap up April 4.
Soil-dumping could result in jobs loss
January 19, 2014
Sonia’s letter to the editor in response to CVRD’s 2013 budget:
Re: CVRD budget decisions stalled for two weeks.
I applaud the CVRD board for taking time to consider in more depth the suggested 8% tax hike in this year’s proposed budget. Taxes should be used to increase the public good, rather than increase the salaries of those whose earnings are already well over $100,000 in many cases. The burden of an 8% tax hike on a family that is already struggling to make ends meet would be considerable, and I would expect the CVRD directors and the staff to keep that at the forefront of their minds while they deliberate this budget.
While a growing gap between rich and poor is an unfortunate reality in much of the world, let’s do our best to avoid measures that further contribute to that gap in our own community.