Environment Minister Polak cancelled South Island Aggregates’ wastewater discharge permit, but will the bad taste left behind impact the provincial election?
CHAMPAGNE FLOWED in Shawnigan Lake village in late February as elated residents celebrated Environment Minister Mary Polak’s decision to cancel the provincial permit for a controversial contaminated waste site upstream from the lake that supplies their drinking water.
“We were celebrating with champagne and hugs and even a few tears. After an hour-and-a-half there were five empty bottles of champagne. This celebration has been a long time coming,” said Sonia Furstenau, Shawnigan’s director on the Cowichan Valley Regional District board and a Green Party candidate in Cowichan Valley.
However, Polak’s decision, although a major victory, is not quite the end of the war that came to a head in 2013 when the Province issued a permit allowing Cobble Hill Holdings to store up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year on the Stebbings Road property.
Until the soil is removed, residents will be keeping a wary eye on the weather wondering if rain or snow will bring poison flowing into the adjacent stream and, over time, into Shawnigan Lake.
“It’s not the end. We need to get the soil removed,” said Furstenau, who has been at the forefront of the community battle.
Provincial tests showed that, late last year, nine metals exceeded drinking water guidelines, and concerned residents are adamant that Polak must ensure the site is completely cleaned.
In January, BC Supreme Court Justice Robert Sewell referred the case back to the Environmental Appeal Board after he found Cobble Hill Holdings had given “false and misleading” evidence about the company’s relationship with Active Earth Engineering Ltd, which conducted the site’s technical assessment, but also had an ownership interest in the operation.
That made it clear that the entire premise for choosing the site was flawed and unreliable, said Furstenau, who wants to work with the provincial and federal governments to clear the site.
“It was the federal government who sent contaminated soil from CFB Esquimalt to this site, even though they knew there were significant problems” Furstenau said. “They need to come and get their soil and take it away.”
Polak, who previously suspended the permit in January after the company failed to provide the ministry with sufficient information or security bonds, said Cobble Hill Holdings still has responsibility for the site and ministry technical staff will decide what actions are necessary.
“All contaminated soil is not created equal, so the appropriate treatment of that soil will be determined in conjunction with the work that our staff will do,” Polak said. And if necessary, the Province will not hesitate to take legal action, she said.
However, lawyer John Alexander, who acts for Cobble Hill Holdings, warned that people should not jump to conclusions. “I have not had a chance to review and understand the minister’s decision yet, but there should not be an assumption that there is any remediation required,” he said in an email. “This comes as a shock to the company after it worked hard to answer the ministry’s concerns within the time provided,” he added
Meanwhile, the long battle over the dump will inevitably be an issue in the provincial election.
Furstenau’s opponents include Liberal Steve Housser, who also fought the Province’s decision to allow the dump. He’ll likely face residual anger against the Liberals in Shawnigan for the government’s lengthy reluctance to step in. But Housser is hoping his personal credibility and willingness to speak out strongly against the project, combined with Polak’s recent decision, will outweigh that anger.
“The government did not know at the time that they were dealing with people who would stoop to using flawed and misleading evidence. The permit was given without full knowledge of the characters they were dealing with,” he said.
If elected as part of a Liberal government, Housser wants to ensure that no other community is forced to raise money through sock hops and bottle drives to defend itself against its own government in efforts to protect the drinking water supply. “There should be an understanding that a watershed that people depend on for drinking water should be off limits for contaminated material,” he said.
It’s certainly a concept supported by Furstenau, who emphasizes that water safety should be a concern for communities all over BC and a priority for government. The Liberal government has failed to adequately protect water in the province, largely because of lack of enforcement and weak compliance regulations, she said.
The Cowichan Valley seat has been held for the last eight years by New Democrat Bill Routley, who is retiring, and the recently-nominated NDP candidate is Lori Iannidinardo, a Cowichan Valley Regional District director.
Iannidinardo said that, through the CVRD, she has been involved in the dump battle from the early days. “Government didn’t act appropriately at all—they shouldn’t have given them a permit. I am running to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “Our communities have paid one million dollars fighting against our own government.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
Edited by Judith Lavoie