We anxiously await news on yet another decision on the matter of the contaminated landfill in our watershed. It takes a terrible toll on our community to have these decisions – decisions that impact our water, our community, and our future – in other people’s hands. And it makes no sense to us that decisions impacting our watershed and our drinking water have been made over and over again by people who don’t live in this community or drink our water.
And yet, this is the reality we have had to live with for over four years.
Justice Sewell indicated that he would make an effort to give judgment on the Shawnigan Residents Association (SRA) Judicial Review case by the middle of December. No news so far, and while we wait, we endure the consequences of a misguided decision by the BC Ministry of Environment.
A brief recap of the SRA’s case:
The lawyers for the SRA filed a petition to the BC Supreme Court in May 2015 seeking a judicial review of the Environmental Appeal Board’s decision to uphold the Ministry of Environment’s decision to issue a permit to Cobble Hill Holdings that allows the company to import and landfill five million tonnes of contaminated soil at the headwaters of our watershed.
In July, August, and November 2015, the SRA submitted three more applications to the courts which included evidence of an alleged 50-50 profit sharing agreement between Cobble Hill Holdings and Active Earth, the engineers who signed off on the suitability of the location for a contaminated landfill and submitted the design for the landfill. The applications also included hundreds of pages of documents, including emails between the two companies.
The Judicial Review was finally heard in the BC Supreme Court in February 2016, after several earlier court dates in the summer of 2015. We had all hoped for a swift decision from Justice Sewell, but the decision from Justice Mackenzie in the CVRD case seems to have resulted in a slower decision-making process from Justice Sewell.
While these processes slowly weave their way through the court system, what has been happening up at the landfill?
The company imported contaminated soil throughout the summer of 2016, after being granted a stay to the injunction that had been imposed by Justice Mackenzie. Most of the soil came from the CFB Esquimalt, where remediation of the gravings docks has been ongoing.
On October 8th, during the first real rainfall of the season, a significant breach of contact water occurred at the site. (You can read about it here: More rain, more concerns.) This resulted in a Pollution Prevention Order from the Ministry of Environment, and one of the requirements of the order was that the company provide water sampling results to the Ministry.
MoE has published the sampling results up to November 5th on their website (we still await the results from November and early December).
I have spent some time looking through all of the available results, and the data tells a worrying story.
Remember that the permit that was issued to Cobble Hill Holdings is one that authorizes the company to “discharge treated effluent” to the environment. The permit very clearly states what the quality of that discharged effluent must be:
We have been raising concerns for over a year that the company is not meeting this fundamental requirement of the permit. (See: Mary We Have a Problem & What Will it Take.)
The water sampling results from October and November make it abundantly clear that in no uncertain terms this landfill site is failing to meet its permit conditions.
Let’s take a look at the data – all of which comes from the Ministry of Environment website. I have compiled it into a spreadsheet (don’t worry – I’ll break it down into bit-sized pieces below).
Now let’s take a closer look at what’s happening.
Each of the metals that exceeds either a drinking water or aquatic water guideline is highlighted in a colour that corresponds to that guideline (the bright pink for Iron indicates that the levels exceed more than one guideline).
Between October 8th (date of the contact water breach) and November 5th, ten metals were above the stated guidelines at least twice, and in some cases every time the samples were taken.
Let’s look at these one at a time.
Aluminum levels in the discharge water were at 1370 µg/L on October 8th, the day of the contact water breach. Twelve days later, the levels rose to 4570 µg/L, then to 7560 µg/L. On November 5th, nearly a month after the contact water breach, Aluminum levels were more than four times what they were on October 8th, and nearly 57 times above Health Canada drinking water guidelines.
Chromium levels in the discharge water rose significantly on the day of the contact water breach (for comparison, chromium levels in Shawnigan Creek above the landfill site are 0.27 µg/L – which means that on October 8th, the levels at the discharge point were more than 100 times higher). Over the course of the rest of October, the levels went down, and then back up again on the 20th and 21st. Five out of nine samples exceeded the guidelines for the protection of aquatic life.
Cobalt exceeded the aquatic life water quality guidelines twice – on the day of the breach and again on October 21st. It is also interesting to note on October 8th, cobalt levels in the discharge water were 670 times higher than the levels in Shawnigan Creek above the landfill site. Even at the lowest levels at the discharge site on October 16th are 28 times higher than the level above the site.
Copper levels exceeded both chronic and acute guidelines for the protection of aquatic life, and saw three spikes – October 8th, October 20th-21st, and November 5th. In Shawnigan Creek above the landfill site, there is less than 1 µg/L, meaning levels at the discharge site have been between 2 and 32 times higher than upstream.
What’s interesting about the Iron levels in the discharge water is that they were not particularly high on the day of the contact water breach, but they have been consistently high over the course of the entire month, with significant spikes on the 20th, and 21st of October, and then again on the 5th of November. These levels are up to 28 times above Health Canada drinking water guidelines, and over 70 times higher than the levels in the creek above the landfill site.
Lead levels at the discharge site varied from a high of 11.3 µg/L on October 8th down to 0.3 µg/L on October 16th. They climbed again on the 20th/21st and on November 5th. It’s again important to note that there is virtually no lead (0.054 µg/L) in the creek above the site.
Manganese levels also spiked three times over the course of the month – the pattern of these spikes seems to be demonstrating that the contact water breach was not limited to October 8th.
Silver also spiked significantly on October 21st. Note that silver is undetectable in Shawnigan Creek above the CHH site, and significantly above aquatic life guidelines on October 21st.
Vanadium levels rose on October 8th, 20th/21st, and November 5th, and exceeded BC guidelines for protection of aquatic life four times over the month. On October 8th, Vanadium was 64 times higher at the discharge site than what has been measured in the creek above the landfill.
Zinc followed the standard pattern as well. Note that zinc is undetectable in the creek above the site.
Those are the metals that exceeded one or more of the water quality guidelines that the BC Ministry of Environment has specified must be met under the conditions of the permit.
And that’s just in one month.
What about some of the other metals in the water over the course of this month?
Let’s start with metals that are undetectable upstream from the site:
It would appear that these metals have been introduced to our watershed environment by the CHH site. The Ministry of Environment will contend that these metals do not pose a health risk, but that is missing the point, as far as I’m concerned. These metals do not occur naturally in the ecosystem, and they are being introduced by a landfill operation that should never have been allowed in the first place.
Then let’s look at metals that do appear in the upstream testing results.
A few figures to note in all of this.
Silicon is up to ten times higher at the discharge point than upstream, Barium and Strontium 30 times higher, Calcium 36 times higher, and Magnesium 44 times higher.
Sodium is up to 50 times higher, Chloride 90 times higher, Sulfate 148 times higher, and Titanium 217 times higher.
And the turbidity of the water? A whopping 318 times higher at the discharge point than upstream.
Now there may be those who say this isn’t scientific enough – and I readily admit that I am a historian, not a scientist (which may explain why I look for trends over time).
However – the independent scientists who assessed this site for its suitability for a contaminated landfill over four years ago identified the location, the geology, and the hydrogeology as presenting a risk to water in the area.
Denis Lowen pointed out a few more problems with the landfill proposal:
And the company’s claim that water quality would be protected by liners?
This brings us back to the question of who decides what happens in our watershed.
So far, not a single one of the decision-makers has been a person who drinks water from the Shawnigan watershed.
- Hubert Bunce, Statutory Decision Maker for Ministry of Environment
- Alan Andison, Brenda Edwards, and Tony Fogarassy, Environmental Appeal Board Panel Members
- Justice Brian D. Mackenzie, BC Supreme Court (who decided in favour of the CVRD and imposed what turned out to be a short-lived injunction against the company)
- Justice Pamela A. Kirkpatrick, BC Court of Appeal
- Justice Daphne Smith, Justice Gail Dickson, Justice Gregory Fitch, BC Court of Appeal
- A.J. Downie, current Statutory Decision Maker for Ministry of Environment
- Jennifer McGuire, Executive Director, Ministry of Environment
And now we await another decision from Justice Robert Sewell of the BC Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, the BC Ministry of Environment has all of the information above, and has downplayed the fact that this company is consistently out of compliance with the most basic requirement of its permit (ie. that all water discharged meet water quality guidelines for drinking water and protection of aquatic life).
Minister Mary Polak has issued two letters (Oct 11th and Nov 4th) to the company – after a year of their refusal to do what was being asked of them by ministry staff – and she has given them until December 20th to produce water management reviews of contact and non-contact water.
But I contend that Minister Polak has all the information she needs in order to make the right decision and revoke the permit that should never have been granted in the first place. We are just 21 months into a 50-year permit, and the problems keep getting worse.
If the Minister won’t make the right decision, she can be assured that the people of Shawnigan will never give up. Ultimately the decision should be ours – the risk is borne by us, the consequences are borne by us, and the long-term impacts are borne by us. And we have been clear from the very beginning – we do not accept this contaminated landfill in our watershed, and we never will.