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.