Mary, the problem is getting worse

On October 17th 2016, Environment Minister Mary Polak was interviewed by CBC’s Gregor Craigie – the discussion was about the contaminated landfill in Shawnigan’s watershed owned by Cobble Hill Holdings and operated by South Island Resource Management.

There had been a contact water breach at the site on October 8th that was caught on video by a Cowichan Valley resident; untreated contaminated water flowed from the site during a typical late fall rain storm.  As a result of that breach, and with a major weather system on the way, Ministry of Environment issued a Pollution Prevention Order, that stipulated that the company had to cover the pile of contaminated soil that sits in its active quarry, half way up a mountain overlooking Shawnigan Lake.

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During her interview, Minister Polak stated that “thankfully the site was secured ahead of the weekend storm” and she went on to state that “it appears that over the weekend the securement [sic] of the site was effective and water didn’t leave the site.”

But water did leave the site, and has continued to leave the site continuously for months.  And for two straight months, every sample of water discharged from this site has failed to meet the basic requirements of the permit – even after the company put a “permanent cover” over the contaminated soil. What is that basic requirement?  That all water leaving this site “must be equivalent or better than the most stringent BC Approved Water Quality Guidelines.”

Over a year ago, on November 30th, 2015, I wrote a post about the water that was flowing off the Cobble Hill Holdings landfill site.  In Mary, we have a problem, I pointed out that several metals were showing up in the water leaving the site at much higher levels that in Shawnigan Creek above the site.

I asked the question that I have not once stopped asking since – is it not a problem that there are elevated levels of metals entering into a creek that feeds our community drinking water?  The landfill is already impacting water quality in our drinking watershed – why is this okay with BC’s Minister of Environment?

Well, the problem has gotten a whole lot worse in the last 12 months.

Last month, I wrote Who decides?  Looking at the data from the Ministry of Environment’s website, it’s clear that untreated contact water is leaving this site – levels of aluminum, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, manganese, silver, vanadium, and zinc all exceeded either drinking water or aquatic life protection guidelines throughout the month of October.

Then, at the beginning of November, the company put a “permanent cover” over the contaminated soil – as seen in this photo submitted to the Ministry of Environment by the company.  (Yes – that “permanent cover” is essentially a tarp with tires on top of it.)

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(Here’s what the pile looked like a few days ago – tires have slid down with the snow.)

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So if the contact water breach was caused by water running off the contaminated soil, over the quarry floor, and out through the (ineffective) settling pond, then this cover should have solved all of the problems, right?

Not according to the independent experts who weighed in during the Environmental Appeal Board hearings.  They pointed out that there is significant sub-surface water flow at this site, which would allow for contaminants to be introduced to the environment through water flowing under the soil pile and out into the creek that flows off this site, and into Shawnigan Creek and eventually into Shawnigan Lake.

So what has actually happened since the “permanent cover” has been put over the soil?

I’m sorry, Minister – but it’s not good news (and you know it).  Right there on the Ministry of Envrionment’s website, the water sampling data tells the story.

The company has submitted test results from November 9th, 22nd, 24th, 25th, and 26th – and it seems that the cover isn’t really helping matters much.

Let’s look at Aluminum.

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After the cover was in place, Aluminum levels actually rose in the water being discharged from the site.  And by the end of November, levels were 38 times above Health Canada Drinking Water Guidelines (for operational considerations for drinking water treatment using coagulants).

How about Chromium?

chromiumChromium is well above the Aquatic Life Protection Guideline (Acute) throughout November, and in fact rises to the highest level at the end of the month, more than three weeks after the “permanent cover” was secured over the contaminated soil.  So how could all that Chromium be escaping the site if the soil is covered?  Could it be that the contaminants are leaching into the sub-surface water that flows all over this quarry?

 

Next up – Copper.

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Copper exceeded chronic Aquatic Protection guidelines all through November, and then shot up over acute levels on the 26th.

Iron was also a problem all through November  – between 2 and 4 times above Aquatic Protection guidelines, and rising significantly three weeks after the “permanent cover” was in place.

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Vanadium also exceeded the Aquatic Protection guideline for all of November, while Manganese went above Health Canada Drinking Water guidelines twice, and Zinc levels were above the Aquatic Protection levels four out of five times.

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So let’s go back to the Minister’s October 17th interview.  At one point, Gregor Craigie asked her what the appropriate criteria for revoking the permit would be.

“Untreated contaminated water leaking…for a third time? Is there a certain number of times?  A more serious breach?” he asked.

The Minister responded, “…it’s about [staff] assessment about whether or not the company managing the site are capable of managing the site.  If they at any time believe that [the company] were not capable of securing the site, then they would certainly make that recommendation to me.”

Seems pretty clear that there are some “management” issues at this site.

The December 20th deadline for the company to submit several reports to the Ministry, including contact and non-contact water management reports, has come and gone without any word from Minister Polak.

And yet it would appear that she has all the evidence she needs to recognize that this landfill should never have been allowed in our watershed.  Less than two years in to a fifty-year permit, this site is plagued with ongoing problems, and the evidence is indisputable: it is already having a negative impact on the environment.

And let’s not forget that while the permit is for fifty years, the contaminated soil would be left on site forever.

The Minister said during her interview, “I can’t pull the permit simply because the issue is giving me a political problem.”

This isn’t a political problem, Mary.  This is a real-life problem for the real-life families who live in Shawnigan Lake.  And we expect you, as Minister of Environment, to ensure that our children, and their grandchildren, will have safe, clean water to drink in perpetuity.