What will it take?

What will it take for Mary Polak and Christy Clark to take real action on the serious concerns being raised by the citizens of Shawnigan Lake?

Why is the government downplaying the impacts that South Island Aggregates/Cobble Hill Holdings (SIA/CHH) contaminated landfill is already having on our environment?

And if the provincial government won’t act, due to their pro-industry at all costs ideological stance, then what will it take for the federal government, in particular the ministries of Fisheries and Environment, to step in and respond?

Are we in BC at the mercy of regulatory agencies that are not doing their jobs because of a political mandate from above?  Is the Shawnigan Lake watershed at risk because the BC government has gone too far with deregulation under its “Professional Reliance Model”?

A report outlined in a January 28th Globe and Mail article indicates that this is what has been happening at the federal level. ‘Environment Canada Officers Failed to Uphold the Law: Report’:

globe and mail - failure of EC

In Shawnigan Lake, we have experienced a blatant lack of regard for concerns that have been documented and submitted to the Ministry of Environment (MoE) and Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM).  It seems that these agencies have even ignored their own data and evidence in order to ensure the uninterrupted operations of a contaminated soil landfill at the headwaters of our watershed.  Ministry staff rely on the company’s own reports and monitoring, creating a “fox guarding the hen house scenario” – another weakness of Environment Canada that was identified in the recent report:

EC and corps

Given the many concerns that have been raised over several years about the impacts the SIA/CHH site is having on the environment, and the tendency towards non-enforcement on the part of both MoE and MEM, residents are growing increasingly uneasy with the government’s inaction.

Below are a few of the most grievous examples.


From the beginning, the prospect of having a contaminated soil landfill in our watershed has raised concerns about the potential impacts to our groundwater.  The Lowen Hydro-geology report from 2013 identifies that there is groundwater at the site:

Lowen - groundwater

In June 2015, Ministry of Environment (MoE) released a report on compliance and monitoring at the SIA/CHH site. (MoE Report: Cobble Hill Holdings Compliance and Monitoring June 2015)

Included in the report are results of groundwater samples collected by MoE in April 2015, which were compared to the results from the “Qualified Professionals”, Active Earth.  (The relationship between Active Earth and SIA/CHH has received enormous scrutiny since a document that appears to show a 50-50 profit-sharing agreement was delivered to the Shawnigan Residents Association: See Vancouver Sun Story.)

These results, and the Ministry’s response to them, are disturbing.

MoE vs CHH results

At Monitoring Well 1S, Ministry tests show nine metals exceeding drinking water guidelines, and at Monitoring Well 2, three metals exceeding guidelines.  Indeed, Ministry data strongly suggest groundwater down-slope of the SIA/CHH site is contaminated with lead, arsenic and uranium at levels more than double the BC Contaminated Sites Regulation standard for drinking water.

At the same time Active Earth, the company’s “Qualified Professionals” failed to produce recent monitoring results from these wells, despite this being a requirement of the permit, and the year-old results they did produce are nearly universally different from the Ministry results.

MOE states in their report that:  “there was little consistency in how the MOE lab results deviated from the CHH results. Concentrations were considerably higher for some parameters and much lower for other parameters.”

But this is not actually the case. In the case of Monitoring Well S1, CHH results are higher than MoE for only dissolved arsenic (1.1 times higher) and nitrite (2.27 times higher). For all other results, the MOE values are on average 34 times higher than CHH values.

What are we to infer from the fact that MoE staff are stating conclusions that are not supported by the data they are presenting in the report?  Why does it seem that MoE staff are determined to make it appear that there aren’t problems – either with the data or the discrepancies?

In their report on Professional Reliance, the UViC Environmental Law Centre identified many problems with this “hands-off” approach to industry that has been adopted by the Chrisy Clark government.  Are we in Shawnigan the victims of this ideological model?

professional deference

(See also this February 4th Vancouver Sun Article by Stephen Hume.)

Surface Water

Concerns about surface water have also been long-standing.

MoE consistently adheres to its messaging that water leaving the site has to meet BC Drinking Water and Aquatic Life Guidelines.

What they consistently will not address, however, is the evidence that water leaving the site is accumulating contaminates.

Andrew Weaver’s recent water samples of the stream that exits the western edge of the SIA/CHH site onto the neighbouring CVRD park show that sodium levels are seven times higher than in the water in Shawnigan Creek above the site.  Weaver also found sulphur levels in the stream at 33 mg/L, while sulphur undetectable above the site.  (More Samples, More Questions.)

MoE’s testing of surface water from the site in November 2015 found Sulphur at 23.2 mg/L from the settling pond discharge (Nov 23 MoE report) and 56.1 mg/L 15 m west of the discharge point (Nov 17 MoE report).

Here are the questions MoE and Mary Polak will not answer:

  • Where is the sulphur and sodium coming from?
  • Could they be coming the soil that’s been shipped in from Pacific Coast Terminals, which is high in sulphur and sodium?
  • If so, how are metals that are in that soil, which is supposed to be “contact soil” (ie. all water that comes into contact with it is treated in the water treatment system), showing up in the water leaving the site that makes its way to Shawnigan Creek and Shawnigan Lake?
  • What are the cumulative impacts of these and other contaminates that are being introduced to the freshwater environment?
  • Why does MoE insist that unless there is an immediate health risk, they won’t take action, which ignores the question of long-term cumulative impacts?

The implications of this approach is that the company will be allowed to dump until finally the levels of contaminates in the surface water exceed drinking water guidelines.  But by then, isn’t it too late? How will MoE approach the task of removing those contaminates from our watershed?

Fly Ash

For weeks on end, citizens of Shawnigan documented in photos and videos fly ash being blasted into the contaminated soil at the SIA/CHH site – with much of the material floating away and off into the “non-contact” areas of the quarry (ie. the water from these areas is not treated), then beyond into the nearby trees and water in billowing clouds of dust.

The fly ash is being used to stabilize the very wet soil that’s been brought from Pacific Coast Terminals in Port Moody.

fly ash 1

Fly ash is a residue of coal combustion.  A search on its properties reveals that fly ash is not something any community would want blowing around its watershed.

coal ash

An email to MEM from a concerned Shawnigan citizen resulted in this response:

fly ash response from MEM

The end result?  Fly ash still billowing, but now the workers are wearing protective masks.  What about the protection of the Shawnigan watershed and drinking water, where the toxins from this material accumulate?

fly ash 3

We have been raising our concerns about the fly ash with MoE since December, with no result.  Here is the last response received from the Ministry’s “Compliance Officer”, received January 5th:

fly ash - caunce response

While section 2.10 the MoE permit requires that “fugitive dust created within the operation area be suppressed”, beyond the requirement that workers wear masks, we have seen no action taken on this issue.


In the spring of 2015, MoE did a “Historical Records Review” of SIA’s dumping activities on Lot 21, the northern piece of SIA’s Stebbings Rd property.

Lot 23 & Lot 21

Concerns about the soil that’s been dumped on this site are long-standing, with reports of dumping of industrial waste, tires, and contaminated fill having been made to MEM since 2008.  Testing of the water that is leaching off the bottom of Lot 21 and directly into Shawnigan Creek has been done by local residents and by Andrew Weaver.  Weaver’s results and analyses, which can be found on his website – water samples & sediment samples – raise concerns about a number of contaminates in the run-off, including iron, lead, thorium, and chromium.

MoE intended to review SIA’s records to determine if contaminated soil had been improperly dumped at the site between 2008 and 2013.

There was a problem, however.  The records given to MoE via MEM could not conclusively be linked to SIA’s operations.

Records review 2

Essentially, MoE did an investigation into the historical records of the SIA, but admits that the records they investigated “cannot be directly linked to the company and Lot 21.”

And even the records they did review “did not contain adequate information” to determine the origin, deposition location, or quality of the soils dumped at Lot 21, “assuming Lot 21 is actually the deposition site.”

What kind of government agency allows this to happen? If I were ordered by CRA to submit financial records for an audit, but instead produced my neighbour’s records, would the CRA be fine with this?

And the conclusions MoE draws from its review of SIA’s records?

Records review 3

Does this mean that MoE will demand that SIA/CHH produce accurate records?  Does it mean that MoE will further investigate the soils that have been dumped on the property?


Here’s the final statement on  MoE’s Information Sheet on SIA/CHH Historical Record Review:

Records review next steps

Where does this leave us?

Minister of Environment Mary Polak has said on more than one occasion in the Legislature that MoE staff ensure that public health and the environment is kept safe, and that they do so “independent of political interference.”

Yet to the residents of Shawnigan Lake, it seems possible that there is political influence or pressure.  Just as the report from Environment Canada indicates that staff aligned their actions to the Harper government’s priorities, could it be that MoE staff are aligning their actions to the “priorities” of Christy Clark’s government?

In 2013, Clark’s mandate letter to Environment Minister Mary Polak puts an emphasis not on protection of the environment, but “acceptable impact and mitigation strategies when faced with project approval decisions.”

mandate letter to polak 2013

Is what is happening in Shawnigan a “mitigation strategy”?

Flint Michigan and Shawnigan Lake BC

In Flint,  it’s becoming clear that authorities in Michigan dismissed growing concerns of the residents about the taste and appearance of their drinking water, and the growing incidences of rashes,  illness and weakness.

What’s more disturbing is the question raised in a recent New Yorker article:

Flint question New Yorker

In their downplaying of concerns abut Flint’s water, Michigan authorities and Governor Snyder stated that the issues were “aesthetic” – and therefore not relevant to drinking water guidelines.  (This can be seen in this CNN article: Five striking emails on the Flint water crisis.)

This same dismissal of residents’ concerns – that the issues are aesthetic – was also used by Mary Polak to downplay MoE’s test results that showed metals that exceeding drinking water guidelines.

“Adaptive Management”

From the outset, the Ministry of Environment has said that they would require strict adherence to the permit conditions at this site. But this message seems to have changed in November 2015.

In its response to the non-compliance events on November 13, when a stream of water was discovered flowing off the SIA/CHH site and onto the neighbouring CVRD park, MoE issued a variety of letters and information sheets.

In the Information Sheet on Cobble Hill Holdings / South Island Aggregates Summary of Water Requirements, MoE states the following:

adaptive management

Is the “adaptive management model” MoE’s mitigation strategy for the SIA/CHH site? Is this the best this government agency can do when it comes to protecting drinking water for 12,000 people?

We demand better of this government.

The health of an entire community is not an acceptable risk, and an adaptive management model is not an acceptable approach to protecting drinking water.

It is time for the Minister of Environment to put aside her political priorities and do her sworn duty.  It is time for Minister Polak to take immediate action to stop the harm that is being done in the Shawnigan watershed.