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.)

Liner November 4 2016.png

(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.

aluminum

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.

copper

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.

iron

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.

vanadiummanganesezinc

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.

 

 

Will this deadline have any meaning?

Today is the deadline for CHH to submit “an updated closure plan, revised cost estimate, revised security, and reports detailing the review of contact and non-contact water management systems” to Ministry of Environment. This is not the first deadline this company has had to submit these reports – that was actually June 2016, as agreed to by MoE and CHH way back in January 2016.
But the company didn’t meet that deadllne.
A letter from June detailing that missed deadline can be found here.
In August, MoE sent another letter to the company, reminding them that they’d missed the deadline.
Then in October, Mary Polak, the Minister of Environment, sent a letter telling the company she was considering suspending or revoking their permit, since they had missed their deadlines.
In November, Minister Polak sent yet another letter, telling the company that she was “affording Cobble Hill Holdings Ltd. the opportunity to submit information to me by December 20, 2016, which specifically addresses the non-compliant requirements identified. I will reserve my decision regarding the status of Permit 105809 at this time.”
Today, I learned that the company has until midnight tonight to get all of the documents and reports submitted.
And we wonder, of course, if this deadline will have any more meaning that the deadlines of the past.  Will the company, which has been been out of compliance with their permit for over a year, be given any more extensions, or is this truly the final deadline?  Will the fact that the water sampling throughout October shows in no uncertain terms that this company is not meeting the requirement that all water discharged meet the strictest drinking water and aquatic life protection guidelines have a bearing on the Minister’s decision at this time?
And what does the site look like these days?  Here are two collections of photos – one from late November and the other from a few days ago.
The circumstances that we facing as a community are outrageous and unacceptable.  If the Ministry of Environment had heeded the warnings of the independent scientists who identified problems with the location, the geology, the hydro-geology, the design, and the engineering of this site, we would not be in this situation – indeed, the Ministry could have done the right thing at the beginning and refused to issue a permit that allows five million tonnes of contaminated soil to be dumped at the headwaters of our watershed.
But it’s never too late to do the right thing, and to correct the mistakes of the past.  The Minister has the authority – and every reason – to revoke this permit, and order that all soil be removed from this site.  It is the only acceptable course of action at this time.
As we have so many times before – we await a decision.
Let’s hope that this time, it’s the right one.  But if it’s not – we remain undeterred and steadfast in our determination to see an end to this nightmare our community has had to endure for so long.

Who decides?

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:

permit-condition

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).

water-sampling-data

 

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).

water-sampling-above-limits

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

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-graphChromium 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

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

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.

ironWhat’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.pngLead 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

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.

silverSilver 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.

vanadiumVanadium 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

 

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:

boronnickelphosphorussulfur

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.

turbidity.png

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.

lowen-2012

Denis Lowen pointed out a few more problems with the landfill proposal:

site-hydrologyAnd the company’s claim that water quality would be protected by liners?

lowen-on-linersThis 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.

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.

limestone-comments

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.

P1000491

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.

groundwater-comments-august-2016

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.

Where are we at?

There has been a lot of discussion of the ruling that came down on April 15th from Justice Kirkpatrick, and it seems to have created confusion.  Did we win?  Did we lose?
 
The ruling allows SIRM to complete the contracts that were in place as of March 21, 2016. According to the documents submitted to the court, the volume of soil in those contracts is 106,000 tonnes. The company intends to resume hauling soil, and they have been actively working at the site and returning equipment.
Contracts allowed under the stay
 
How, exactly, could that be construed as a win?
 
Yes – it is only a partial stay of the injunction – but a stay that allows them to essentially double the volume of contaminated soil at the site.
 
Yes, the injunctions from Justice MacKenzie remain in place after the contracts from the stay have been fulfilled – but the company has permission from Justice Kirkpatrick to import soil until the contracts are complete or until the appeal is heard in August. That means four more months of truckloads of contaminated soil being dumped in our watershed.
 
For all of us in Shawnigan, every truckload of soil brought to that site is the opposite of a victory.
soil mountain
 
As I said many times after the MacKenzie decision, we have many more victories that we will need before this fight is over.
 
We await the Sewell decision on the Judicial Review.
 
We await action from the provincial government, which has ignored our community for four years.
 
We await the appeal hearing of the zoning decision in August.
 
The truth is that we are plunged back into uncertainty as a community, and that we face the grim reality of trucks continuing to haul – for now – contaminated soil to Stebbings Rd.
 
And we we continue to work hard, as a community. The teams we formed in December have continued to work together. We continue to support each other and take care of each other. We continue to act with kindness, generosity, and compassion towards each other.
 
And these are the most important things that we can do. We have won respect and admiration as a community for the ways in which we have chosen to pull together and care for each other throughout this horrible ordeal, and we’ve created a strong, loving community. A trusting community. Let us not allow that trust or compassion to be eroded.
 
We are all weary from this fight, but our greatest strength is each other – let’s remember to value what we’ve created in Shawnigan, and fiercely protect it.
 
We have known from the beginning that this will be a long fight, and it will be a hard fight. We are going down all avenues available to us, because we value our water so much that we do not intend to let the outcome hinge on a single court decision.
 
I intend to never give up with my efforts to protect our watershed, and throughout this entire ordeal, I have drawn my strength, my courage, and my determination from this community.