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.


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.)


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.


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 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.


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.


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.



How did we get here?

How did we get to this place, this time, in which the people of Shawnigan Lake hear the sound of rain and feel dread?

How is it that grandparents and students, mothers and fathers, feel that trucks 2they have no choice but to stand in front of 40-tonne trucks on a lonely road half way up a mountain?   Community Story

How has it happened that the Ministry of Environment, a government agency that has a duty to protect the citizens of BC, seems to have acted against us for nearly four years?

How is it that the interests of one company have over and over again trumped the health and well being of an entire community?

pit photo

The Story of Shawnigan vs South Island Aggregates/Cobble Hill Holdings

In July 2012, South Island Aggregates (SIA) owners Mike Kelly and Marty Block, along with engineers Matt Pye, Jeff Taylor, and David Mitchell from Active Earth Engineering, came to Shawnigan with their plan to turn their rock quarry into a contaminated soil landfill. The quarry is located half way up a mountain at the south end of Shawnigan Lake over the headwaters of our watershed.

The community said no.

Records of a public meeting show that out of over 350 people who attended, only two voiced support for the proposal: the quarry owner’s daughter Nikki Block and Michael Harry, the Chief of the Malahat First Nation. Minutes from July 2012 Public Meeting

(Michael Harry resigned in August as a result of allegations of payoffs from SIA, detailed in court documents: Times-Colonist article.)

But the Ministry of Environment (MoE) moved forward, allowed the company to apply, and issued a draft permit in March 2013.

Again the community said no.

Three hundred letters were submitted to Hubert Bunce, MoE’s Statutory Decision Maker.  Not a single letter was in support.

Again MoE moved forward, and in August 2013 they issued  Waste Discharge Permit 1050809 to SIA.  (The permit is now in held by Cobble Hill Holdings – CHH – also owned by Mike Kelly and Marty Block .)

The permit allows the company to bring in 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil each year for the next fifty years and dump it into the Shawnigan Lake community drinking watershed.

Here’s a partial list of the toxins allowed by the permit:


Legal Actions

Again the community said no.

The CVRD and the Shawnigan Residents Association (SRA) filed appeals of the permit to the Environmental Appeals Board (EAB).  Letters of opposition from the Cowichan Tribes First Nation, the local MLA and MP, Vancouver Island Health Authority, and the Capital Regional District were all submitted.

Over 31 days between March and July 2014, the EAB heard testimony from ten expert witnesses, including geologists, hydrogeologists, engineers, and a water treatment specialist.  All experts raised concerns about the suitability of the site and about the engineering and design of the landfill. Some of the expert opinions can be found here.

Active Earth, the engineering firm that assessed the site and designed the landfill, and who were wrong about there being “75 metres of impermeable rock” underneath the site, did not testify.  Their Technical Assessment Report, with the many errors identified during the hearings, is available here.

On March 20th, 2015, the EAB released its decision to uphold the permit, deferring over and over again to the information provided by Active Earth, despite the engineers not having been subject to cross examination during the hearings, and despite the many inaccuracies in their reports that were identified during the hearings.  EAB Decision and Final Permit

Letters and Rallies

Again the community said no.

Hundreds of letters were written to Mary Polak, Minister of Environment, and to Premier Christy Clark, asking them to revoke the permit.  Within five weeks, a petition with over 15,000 names had been generated.  A rally at the Legislature was held on May 13th with over 1600 people in attendance.  Cowichan Valley MLA Bill Routley presented the petition in the Legislature, but the Minister of Environment walked out rather than stay and accept it.  Rally coverage in Times-Colonist  and on  Global TV.

On the same day, SIA/CHH announced they were “open for business” and ready to accept contaminated soils.  Chek News Report

More Legal Actions

The community continued to say no.

The CVRD moved forward with its petition to the BC Supreme Court to have its zoning bylaws upheld.  The land on which the landfill is located is not zoned for a landfill facility or contaminated soil facility.  The case was heard in November 2015, and we await a ruling. CVRD Action

The Shawnigan Residents Association (SRA) also moved forward with their application to BC Supreme Court for a Judicial Review of the EAB decision.  This case will be heard in January 2016.  SRA Legal Archive

Allegations of Conflict of Interest, Perjury, Fraud, Bribery

In July 2015, a document that outlined a business partnership between SIA/CHH and their engineers, Active Earth Engineering, was anonymously delivered to the Shawnigan Residents Association.  It is a signed contract in which the two parties agree to a 50-50 split of profits from the contaminated landfill.  See July 8 2015 Affidavit #2 of Calvin Cook

The community thought that surely, given that the company and its engineers had concealed this partnership throughout the application process for the permit, and denied its existence under oath during the EAB hearings, the Ministry of Environment would have sufficient grounds to at least suspend the permit until the courts had heard the case.  But the Ministry took no action, continued to allow dumping at the site, and sent the message out to all of BC that they are comfortable with permit applicants misrepresenting themselves throughout an entire permitting process.   Vancouver Sun Story

Breaches, Water Testing, More Conflicting Science

Eight months into operations of their 50-year permit, during the first heavy rainfall of the year, a new stream of water was found leaving the site.  The breach was reported to MoE not by the company, as required by their permit, but by local residents who discovered it.

VIHA issued a do not use water advisory for South Shawnigan Lake that lasted for five days.

MoE came back with water sampling results, which found elevated levels of Aluminum, Iron, and Manganese – and told the community not to worry – it will just taste bad and stain our clothing.  But we do worry.

What happened to the promise that “all water leaving this site will meet strictest drinking water and aquatic life guidelines” – the mantra of the Minster of Environment from the beginning?  Chek News story

We worry because at every turn, what we are told will protect us does not in fact protect us.

The impermeable rock does not exist – it’s fractured bedrock, so water seeps into the ground.

The engineering is faulty, so water bypasses the “water management and treatment system”.  (See the engineering report commissioned by the CVRD.)

Evidence of non-compliance is documented and compiled daily by community, yet MoE allows the dumping to continue.  Even when the Ministry acknowledges serious issues with the water management systems, they don’t take action.  Letter to CHH from MoE

Instead of what has been promised to us by the company and the government from the start – that water leaving the site would meet the strictest water quality guidelines – we have, eight months into this 50 year permit, water leaving this site that nobody would want to drink.  And that water flows downhill to Shawnigan Creek, which flows downhill to Shawnigan Lake, which then flows through Mill Bay and into the Saanich Inlet.

Citizens Protest

So where does this leave us?

trucks 4

Members of the Shawnigan community have spent weeks on the road in front of the SIA site, trying to stop the dumping in what seems to be the only way that’s left to them – by blocking trucks.

They also spend their days walking along the fence that marks the boundary between SIA and the CVRD park next door.


Ongoing non-compliance has been documented and submitted to MoE and MEM – with little or no response.



Mary Polak has the authority under the Environmental Management Act to suspend or revoke this permit. But she chooses to allow the dumping to continue, day after day, in our community drinking watershed.

Despite the allegations of misrepresentation, fraud, perjury, bribery.

Despite numerous instances of serious and ongoing non-compliance with the conditions of the permit.

Despite water samples that suggest that everything is not okay.  (Mary, We Have a Problem and Make it Stop).

Despite the vehement and steadfast opposition of our community, and an ever growing number beyond.  (When Will it be Enough?)

And each time it rains, the Shawnigan Lake community feels dread – dread about what kinds of toxins are coming off the contaminated soils that have already been dumped in our watershed.