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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:






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:


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.)


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.



Report from UBCM

Last week I attended the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) for the second time. UBCM is an annual gathering of locally elected officials from all over BC – mayors, councilors, and area directors – all hoping to achieve as much as they can for their communities and for the province in 5 intense days.

UBCM has many aspects to it – there are workshops, panels, plenary sessions, resolution sessions, ministerial meetings, speeches, lunches, and receptions – all of which offer the possibility for serendipitous meetings with the people who are in a position to help with issues or dreams that you have for your community.

For me, it’s a non-stop lobbying session for Shawnigan. Here are a few highlights.

On Monday, I attended a session on forestry practices in BC, based on a survey conducted by UBCM. The results of the survey showed consistent concerns and issues from around the province, with 85% of respondents expressing that they do not feel that there is adequate consultation of local communities around forestry practices. We have a significant amount of forestry land in Shawnigan, and I have heard many concerns from residents that echo this sentiment, and in particular concerns about impacts to water quality from logging in our watershed. I raised these concerns with the assembled panel, which included BC’s chief forester and several FLNRO employees. It was interesting to see consistency from local governments around the province on this issue, and the ultimate question from the session was, “How does local government get recognized as a legitimate force that actually knows what’s needed in our communities.” It was good to see representatives of the timber companies on hand, particularly Timberwest, and I appreciated the thoughtful discussion all around.


On Monday evening I went to the Forest Futures event, where we heard about the significant loss of old growth on Vancouver Island. On Tuesday I spoke at a rally for old growth, which was a way to raise awareness about a resolution that came to UBCM on Wednesday, which called for the protection of old growth forest on the island. The resolution made it to the floor, and was passed with a strong majority.

Meetings with ministers are an important component of UBCM – an opportunity for local government representatives to speak directly with ministers about concerns or visions they have for their communities. On Tuesday morning, we had a meeting with Minister Polak, attended by Chair Lefebure and four CVRD directors. I raised our ongoing concerns about the contaminated landfill site in our watershed, including the non-compliance issues identified by Ministry of Environment. Minister Polak’s responses were the same as they have ever been. I didn’t expect much more, but at the same time I think it is important that we continue to convey our deep disappointment with the provincial government on this issue.


On Tuesday afternoon, there was a session called “Soil Movement: Contamination and Invasive Species”. Ministry of Environment staff reported on their proposals for addressing these challenges. CVRD had already formally submitted a report identifying our concerns with the proposed changes to the rules and regulations around the movement of contaminated soil in BC, and I reiterated these to the panel and had a follow-up conversation with MoE staffer Kerri Skelly.

Contaminated Soils Intention Paper A  /  Contaminated Soils Intention Paper B CVRD Staff Report  /  CVRD Response to MoE

On Wednesday morning we heard a keynote speech from Dr Samantha Nutt, who founded the charity War Child. She was one of the most inspiring speakers I’ve heard in a very long time, and she had all of us riveted as she told us her “why”: stories of children living in war-torn regions who suffer in ways that none of us ever want to imagine. Then she brought it home. In the areas where mining is happening in regions of war-torn Africa, and in particular the mining of coltan (a conductive mineral that all of us have in our phones and computers), the incidences of violent rape are clustered around those mines, which are often controlled by warlords. The abuse of the mine workers (who are often children) translates to abuse of the girls and women who live in those regions. Dr Nutt reminded all of us that working for positive change is necessary in this world that is so replete with injustice.


On Wednesday afternoon I attended the “Panel on Responsible Resource Development”, which included Ministers Polak, Bennett, Coleman, Letnick, and Thomson. As I did the year before, I asked the ministers to do a review of the professional reliance model, given what we have seen play out in Shawnigan. And just like last year, they dodged the question. Afterwards, the mayor and councillors from Spallumcheen asked to speak with me – they have had similarly frustrating experiences with MoE, and were keen to discuss our shared issues.

Thursday morning I met with Line Roberts from Island Coastal Economic Trust to discuss potential economic opportunities for Shawnigan, and then it was back to the resolutions session, where we debated and endorsed a number of interesting proposals from local governments all over the province.

By this point, after four 15-hour days, I was starting to lose my voice. Fortunately, I wasn’t too hoarse on Friday morning to speak to the resolution brought forward by CVRD to call for a review of professional reliance in BC – I shared with the assembled delegates our four-year nightmare in Shawnigan, and the blatant conflicts of interest that have underpinned the entire process that has resulted in a contaminated landfill in our watershed. The resolution got resounding support, and will be sent to the provincial government along with all of the other endorsed resolutions of this year’s UBCM.

I am so grateful to have the opportunity to attend UBCM each year, and to be there as a champion for Shawnigan. I am hoping to see some extraordinarily positive developments emerge from some contacts and conversations at this year’s conference – as things develop, I will keep everyone posted. I have returned home exhausted but optimistic, and excited for the incredible future we have as a community.

(I will be posting videos of my speeches soon – stay tuned!)