Reflections on a Busy Week

Some weeks, my calendar tells a story in a snapshot.  This has been one of those weeks.

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The week began with two very different approaches to bringing about change.  I spent much of Monday at the Forest Hydrology Workshop, which was put on by the Cowichan Watershed Board.  We heard from experts on climate, hydrology, and forestry practices, and engaged in an abundance of solution-oriented discussion around how to ensure a balance between forestry and long-term protection of watersheds.

From there, I went to Victoria to attend a vigil against the proposed Kinder Morgan expansion.  Hundreds of citizens came together to peacefully convey the message that the conditions we face in the world today necessitate a transition away from fossil fuels, and that the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline is a step in the wrong direction. Expanding Kinder Morgan not only poses a serious risk to the coast and the coastal wildlife populations, it contributes to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions at a time when we need to be investing in renewable energy alternatives and dramatically reducing our fossil fuel emissions.

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While it is daunting to realize that we are facing extraordinary challenges, I am filled with hope and optimism to see the willingness of so many people to tackle these issues in a variety of ways, whether through informing ourselves of the most recent science on watersheds or sending a message to our government – what’s clear is that people are invested in having a say in the future of our province and our planet.

On Tuesday, Blaise attended the climate change discussion at CVRD while I prepared for an interview with Global TV about the recent changes the Ministry of Environment has made to the Contaminated Sites Regulations – changes that have included some decreases in allowable levels of contaminants, but also some extraordinary increases in other levels.  These changes have raised concerns not only among local governments, particularly in rural areas, but also among scientists and environmental advocates.

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Photo by Laura Colpitts

While my interview didn’t make it to the 2-minute news clip, I was most pleased that our local scientist Bernhard Juurlink was a part of the piece.  Bernie has broken down some of the increases that have been brought in with the new regulations.

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I have called on the Ministry of Environment to provide independent, peer-reviewed science that justifies these increases in allowable levels.  At a time when we know that toxins have infiltrated our ecosystems and are showing up in our bodies, it seems hard to understand why a government would want to raise levels of contaminants, and it begs the question of whether or not we are seeing a similar situation to the one in the US where industry lobbying has resulted in increased allowable limits of chromium-6. A recent report from Environmental Working Group revealed that over 200 million Americans have unsafe levels of chromium-6 in their drinking water.

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Ultimately, we need government to recognize that it has a duty to ensure the long-term protection of the citizens of BC and the ecosystems that we rely on for our survival.

Wednesday was a series of back-to-back meetings at the CVRD – ranging from conversations with MoTI about plans for Shawnigan’s roads in 2017 to meeting with stakeholders to discuss the potential of tourist accommodation in Shawnigan (I will share more on this possibility in the coming weeks), to learning about the next proposed steps for a South Sector Liquid Waste Management Plan.  We also had three CVRD meetings – Special Board meeting, Regional Engineering Services, and Regional Services – during which we discussed matters that included invasive species, solid waste disposal, economic development, airshed protection, and the Trans-Canada Trail.

Thursday and Friday were set aside for CVRD budget meetings.  We’re back in budget season at CVRD (the year’s second – the first budget season is in late summer), which means that the Directors need to approve each one of the budgets for CVRD’s 176 service functions.  Some of these functions are relatively straightforward, while others – solid waste, for example – are large and complex budgets that encompass a variety of activities.

It is one of the most challenging parts of the job, to try to find a balance between the vision of the Board, the recommendations of the staff, the desires of our communities, and the very real need to ensure that citizens are not subject to overly burdensome tax increases.  One of the factors exacerbating this challenge is the ‘downloading’ from higher levels of government.  Tax cuts at provincial and federal levels can often translate to local governments being put into a position of trying to fill in the gaps created when cuts are made to services that impact the lives of people in our communities.  Local governments are also increasingly bearing the economic brunt of climate change.  In the Cowichan, we’re having to deal with flooding as well as drought, and we’re also taking very seriously the need to assess our water supplies and the potential threats they face.  In Vancouver, the city is planning a long-term strategy for mitigating impacts from climate change, and recognizing that the costs will be significant – one recent news story outlines some of these challenges.

We have four full days set aside for budget discussions, and we have agreed to add another to review the overall impact and look for ways to try to reduce the requisition while ensuring that we are maintaining important services.

Thursday and Friday evenings brought opportunities to embrace the festive season.  We attended the very rainy Ladysmith Light Up on Thursday evening, and then the much less damp festivities in Duncan on Friday evening.  Both events were incredibly well attended and very enjoyable.

I am very much looking forward to the Shawnigan Village light up on Sunday December 4th from 3:30 – 6:30.

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In amongst all the meetings and festivities last week, there were dozens of phone calls dealing with everything from the Elsie Miles revitalization to Ministry of Transportation plans and issues.  There are also hundreds of emails, many of which need follow-up; everything from ongoing concerns with what is happening at the contaminated landfill to appointing a new commission member.  I also needed to write an article for a local publication, do a live interview on CFAX on Thrusday and a recorded interview with Juice FM on Friday about the changes to Contaminated Sites Regulations, making the case that the province needs to create a proper plan for the contaminated soil that protects the water and soil of all communities, rather than creating unnecessary risks, particularly in rural areas.

On Saturday, it was lovely to attend the Shawnigan Lake Craft Fair and to see the incredible array of local businesses offering extraordinary and exceptional items.  We are truly an entrepreneurial community, and I am always amazed at the talent and innovation we have right here in our own neighbourhood.

 

So what are my reflections at the end of this busy week?

I am grateful to have the support of my husband, and I am also grateful for my Alternate Director Sierra Acton, who helps out in many ways and took on the task of organizing the annual CVRD Volunteer Appreciation Dinner.  I am also incredibly grateful for the support and kindness of so many in the community who help out in many, many ways (particularly the good fairy of coffee, who keeps me appropriately caffeinated, and the many good food fairies who are helping enormously).  My friends keep me laughing and feeling cared for, and my kids bring me joy.

With the many busy days in a row, I found myself truly enjoying and being present for quiet moments with family, hearing about the kids’ days at school or enjoying a meal together.  And while it can at times seems like there are a lot of balls in the air – and a lot of items on my to-do list – I feel fortunate and grateful to be doing work that serves the community and provides me with a true sense of purpose.

Give Input to Federal Government: Protect Canada’s Water

You only have until November 9th – please take the time to submit your comments now!

Submit your comments to the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities about the the Navigation Protection Act, which was gutted under the Harper government.

The online form is here.

From Council of Canadians Website:

The Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities is accepting written comments on the Navigation Protection Act until Wednesday November 9, 2016. Use this sample letter here as a starting point and the talking points below to urge the standing committee to protect every lake and every river. 

Community Meeting Monday November 7th at 7 pm

This Monday, November 7th at 7 pm, we will host a community meeting at the Shawnigan Lake Community Centre.

This will be an opportunity for questions about the recent ruling to be answered, and to come together as a community to determine our next steps.

Calvin Cook from the Shawnigan Residents Association will be on hand to answer questions about the SRA’s BC Supreme Court case.

We had originally planned on a lake use discussion and the beginning of creating a long-term vision for Shawnigan Lake.  Time permitting, we can move to that topic later in the evening, or if necessary, re-schedule for a later date.

Stay strong, Shawnigan.  We will come together as we always have and continue to stand up for our watershed and our future.  There is only one possible end to this story, and we will work together until we have reached that ending.

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BC Court of Appeal Decision Issued

BC Court of Appeal has issued its decision in the CVRD vs CHH case.

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The Court has ruled that the landfill is under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Mines.

Exact implications of the ruling are being examined.

In Shawnigan, we are deeply disappointed and saddened by the Court of Appeal ruling. For four and a half years, our community has been abundantly clear that we do not accept the risk of a contaminated landfill in our watershed.

What about the groundwater?

Yesterday my eyes were opened to a whole new dimension of the implications of a contaminated landfill in our watershed.

From the beginning, there have been conflicting opinions of the experts who have weighed in on the geology and hydro-geology in and around the quarry that now serves as a contaminated landfill.  Important (and thus far unanswered) questions remain around potential impacts to ground water, and the flows of underground water in and around this area.  The surface water from this landfill site flows toward Shawnigan Lake, but there has not been adequate mapping of the aquifers in this area to determine the level of underground connectivity between the Shawnigan watershed and the adjacent Sooke watershed, which is the water supply for Greater Victoria.

The proponents’ Technical Assessment Report, produced by Active Earth Engineering, claimed that there was 250 feet of “low permeability bedrock” beneath the site.  However, this finding was disputed by Denis Lowen, who stated that he believed “that there is highly fractured soluble limestone prevalent at the Site. The issue with limestone is that it can be more porous and permeable than other types of rock and, therefore, act as a contaminant conduit into aquifers and drinking water sources.”

Geologist Colin Frostad also disputed Active Earth’s claims, and informed the EAB panel that he was “also concerned about the possibility of fluid flow through the fractured bedrock, and critical of Active Earth’s assumption that there is a 75 metre layer of impermeable upper bedrock beneath the Site.”  (See EAB decision, sections 211 & 212.)

Charly Caproff, a recent graduate from Simon Fraser’s Environmental Resource Management program, has taken an interest in this issue, and she is keen to investigate further the presences of limestone and karst caves in this area.  Karst caves are formed by the dissolution of soluble minerals like limestone, and they can form part of underground aquifers that are of high importance for groundwater.  (See more about karst here and here.)

Charly recently posted to her facebook page comments submitted by Doug Makaroff to the Minstry of Environment during the “public consultation period” after the draft permit was issued in 2013.

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Charly included some maps showing limestone deposits in the area.

All of this brings us to yesterday, when Charly and her friend Reid Robinson (known in the Alberni Valley as “Karst Man”) joined a group of intrepid Shawnigan residents willing to brave heavy rains as we searched for limestone and karst.

We started as we often do at Stebbings Rd, where we paid a quick visit to a busy and very wet landfill site.  This liners, held in place by rebar stakes and rubber tires, remain in place, however the “impermeability” remains questionable, given the number of holes there are in them.

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We proceeded first westward, walking toward the nearby limestone quarry.  No surprise to find lots of limestone on our short hike.

But it was our next destination that was extraordinary.  South of the landfill and just over the dividing line between CRD and CVRD, we found a karst cave.  Intrepid Charly scouted it out for us, and then we joined her in the beautiful underground world – which had plenty of water flowing through it.

Once inside we were awestruck by the beauty and mystery of the world we’d entered. (I learned from Charly that the giant bug is a cave cricket – crucial to the health of the cave ecosystem.)

We emerged with a renewed sense of determination, inspired by Charly’s and Reid’s enthusiasm and knowledge.

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Evidence is mounting that the operators of the contaminated landfill are struggling to manage surface water at the site, as seen from events over the last few weeks.  (See Ministry of Environment’s October 12th Inspection Report, Pollution Prevention Order, and ongoing monitoring posted on their “South Island Aggregates – Cobble Hill Holdings” website.)

But the Ministry has not taken seriously the ongoing concerns about the presence of groundwater at the quarry site, and the implications of contaminants entering aquifers in and around this site.  (See Why are we doing this? and What will it take?)

For years, we have documented the “perpetual pond” at the bottom of the SIA quarry – a pool of water that never disappears, even in the longest and hottest of drought periods.

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However, in a strange turn of events, Ministry of Environment (MoE) staff are suggesting that there is groundwater at this site, but not where we would expect them to say it is. When concerns were raised by citizens about dampness appearing underneath the liner that sits beneath the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of contaminated soil, MoE staff stated in an August 2016 compliance report that the moisture was not from water leaking out of the contaminated soil but from groundwater seeping up from beneath the quarry.

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Have Ministry staff considered the implications of the presence of groundwater directly below the area where contaminated soil is slated to be left forever?

So where does this leave us?

  • A contaminated landfill site, uphill from both Shawnigan and Sooke Lake, has ongoing issues with contact water flowing off the site in surface water.
  • Ministry of Environment staff who at first believe the proponents when they say there is no groundwater at this site, now believe the operators when they tell them that there is groundwater at the site.
  • The presence of significant seams of limestone in the area – a mineral that is highly soluble and through which water can move underground
  • The presence of karst caves, which are indicative of underground flows of water

Adequate mapping of aquifers in the area between the Shawnigan and Sooke watershed basins has not been done, but I would suggest that it is becoming increasingly imperative that we develop a thorough understanding of the movement of groundwater in this area.

As we have said for years, this location is wholly unsuitable for a contaminated landfill facility.  Thus far, evidence just keeps piling up to support our position.

At what point will the Ministry of Environment begin making evidence-based decisions about this facility?

When will they make the  long-term safety of drinking water a priority?

When will they begin to consider all of the evidence and information that has been presented to them, rather than consistently agree with the findings of the “qualified professionals” who are paid by the landfill operators?

Enough is enough.

More rain, more concerns

It was the first heavy rainfall of the season – the kind of rain that roused us in the night with its persistent pounding on our roofs and windows.

It was the kind of rain that forced us to think of the 200,000 tonnes of contaminated soil sitting high up in our watershed.

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For weeks we’ve worried that the water collection system would not be able to deal with heavy rain pouring off the slope of the giant pile of contaminated soil.

 

Let’s go back to the Environmental Appeal Board’s decision to uphold the permit issued to Cobble Hill Holdings.  Here are a few statements from the EAB’s 120-page decision about the “multiple layers of protection” that the highly engineered site would provide:

 

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So how did the “multiple barriers” and “multiple layers of protection” fare in the rain today?

You decide.

 

 

 

Today’s rain was heavy, but in no way extreme.  And certainly not the 1-200 year rain event that this site was supposed to be able to handle, according to the EAB decision:

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To their credit, MoE sent out a Conservation Officer to assess what was happening.  By the time he arrived, however, the operators had brought in a vacuum truck – so he did not witness the trenches filled with water or the flow of contact water being stemmed with hay bales.  (Strange – there was no mention of hay bales or vacuum trucks during the EAB hearings or in the EAB decision.)

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The permit was upheld by the EAB in March 2015, and concerns of the citizens of Shawnigan Lake have mounted steadily ever since.  Over the last 11 months, MoE has issued nine public letters to CHH.  Minister Polak frames this as evidence that the Ministry staff are “doing their job” by “monitoring” the site.

I would argue that the ongoing issues at this site are evidence of what we have said from the very beginning: that this permit should never have been issued.  As one expert witness said during the EAB hearings, “this is crazy”.

And almost all of the actual monitoring at the site is done by committed community members who have refused to give up on protecting our watershed.

There is only one acceptable outcome to this story.  This permit must be revoked, and the soils that have been landfilled at this site must be removed.