We Stayed Strong, Shawnigan

On the morning of January 24th, many of us gathered in the village – as we have so many times over the last year – to await yet another court decision.


The last three times we gathered have been devastating, as the BC Court of Appeal undid the BC Supreme Court decision that ruled the Cobble Hill Holdings (CHH) site was not permitted under the CVRD’s zoning bylaws. In April and May, the Court of Appeal allowed the company to continue importing contaminated soil, despite the injunction that had been put in place by Justice Mackenzie. And in November, the Court of Appeal overturned Mackenzie’s decision, delivering yet another blow to our community.

We were understandably nervous Tuesday morning – anxious that we would be facing another disappointment, that we would be having to rally ourselves for yet another round in a fight that has seemed so monumentally unfair.

And so, when the decision arrived and it was a positive one – setting aside the Environmental Appeal Board’s decision and reinstating the stay on the permit – we were elated.  It had been ten months since our last victory, and we finally had something to celebrate. The victory was made so much sweeter by the judge’s emphasis on how CHH and Marty Block had misled the Ministry of Environment and the Environmental Appeal Board about the relationship between CHH and Active Earth – confirming what we have been saying for years.

Then, three days later, a second victory.  At 5 pm on Friday afternoon, the Minister of Environment released a letter stating that “permit 105809 … is suspended effective immediately” and she stated that CHH must provide the following within 15 days:

  • An updated cost estimate for closure that is prepared and signed by a qualified professional and is fully consistent with the attached Landfill Criteria for Municipal Solid Waste
  • Security, in the form of an irrevocable letter of credit, consistent with the requirements of section 8.6 of the 2016 Criteria
  • A draft non-contact and contact water management review report (or reports) that corrects all the deficiencies identified in the attached Ministry Review dated January 19, 2017

And while we’re not finished yet – the permit still needs to be revoked and the soil needs to be removed – we have made two very giant strides towards the end of this nightmare.

We all can celebrate these victories – which have been hard won – and at the same time step back and consider the incredible list of injustices that we have borne as a community.

A Community Ignored

From the very beginning, the Shawnigan community has been abundantly and consistently clear: we did not accept the risk that this landfill posed to our watershed.

Right back to 2012, the community has been standing up and saying no.


The Shawnigan Residents Association hired independent scientists to assess the proposal, the site, and the engineering – and their opinions were clear: this was an unsuitable location and the landfill would pose a threat to our water quality.  (See reports here and here.)

The community began its efforts to engage with the provincial government right from the outset – hundreds voiced their concerns at the Public Meeting in July 2012, and hundreds more wrote letters once the draft permit was issued.


Citizens John and Lois Hayes and Rick Saunders filed their own appeals of the permit, along with the CVRD and the Shawnigan Residents Association (SRA).  The Environmental Appeal Board hearings took 31 days over five months – and many of us attended or watched online, learning about the serous concerns of the independent experts.  We were also shocked by what we perceived as blatant unfairness during the hearings – particularly when the panel refused to allow evidence or to hear witnesses brought forward by the SRA.

Justice Sewell has confirmed that the EAB was indeed unfair in his ruling.


On the last day of the EAB hearings, on a rather cold morning in July, a small group of us gathered on the street out front trying to raise awareness of what was at stake.


We waited eight months for the EAB to make its decision, and when it came (on a Friday afternoon) it was a devastating blow to our community.  But we didn’t give up – we geared up.  Nearly 300 people came to a community meeting on March 24th, 2015, and we decided that we would work together as a community for as long as it took.

CHEK News Report, March 24th 2015: Minister won’t intervene in soil dump dispute – this was the first of several large community meetings we’ve held since the EAB decision.

After the EAB decision, 15,000 signatures were collected, hundreds more letters were written, and rallies and protests began.

In June, 2015, Elizabeth May joined the Shawnigan community at the contaminated soil facility.  Protesters Blockade Contaminated Soil Site

The opposition to the permits was overwhelming and the support was non-existent, but that in no way swayed the provincial government.  All our pleas, our evidence, our research, and our efforts were dismissed, and over and over again Minister Polak talked about her “technical expert staff” and the “independent qualified professionals” who were assuring her that everything was fine.

The attitude prevailed among other ministers too.  I approached Minister Terry Lake, who signed the original permit, at a conference in Kamloops in early 2015 and shared my concerns with him.  “You people,” he said to me with contempt.  “You people don’t understand that the process will protect you.”

A Broken Process

But the process didn’t protect us – it endangered us.  The process was weighted against us, against independent scientific evidence, and against common sense.  The process seemed to have a pre-determined outcome (otherwise known as “getting to yes”) and it seemed that the pre-determined outcome controlled the process.

Consider what was lacking from the process – which included the Environmental Appeal Board hearings.

Landfill siting study?  Nope.

Independent environmental assessment?  Nope.

Equal weighting of scientific evidence that conflicted with that of the engineers hired by the company?  Nope.

Consideration of the previous actions of the proponents, including non-compliance with their Mines permit?  Nope.

Consideration of the experience of the proponents or their engineers with designing, engineering, and managing a contaminated landfill site?  Nope.

Consideration of the opposition of the CVRD, VIHA, Cowichan Tribes, the Shawnigan community, the CRD, and the City of Victoria?  Nope.

And worst of all, when it was revealed over 18 months ago that Active Earth, the engineers who assessed the site and designed the landfill were in a 50-50 profit-sharing deal with CHH, the Ministry of Environment did nothing, and allowed soil to continue to be imported to the site.

Their excuse?  “The matter is before the courts.”  The result of their inaction is a giant pile of contaminated soil in our watershed that is already leaching heavy metals into the environment.


Court Battles

The CVRD and the SRA filed applications in the BC Supreme Court.  Both won their cases.  The CVRD’s win was overturned by the BC Court of Appeal; the CVRD Board decided to appeal its case to the Supreme Court of Canada.  It will be at least a few months before we will know if the SCC will hear the case.

The ruling delivered on January 24th by Justice Sewell, which set aside the Environmental Appeal Board’s decision and reinstated the stay on the site (thus preventing any contaminated soil being brought it) was a scathing indictment of the CHH owners.  Justice Sewell pointed out again and again that Marty Block and CHH “misled” the Ministry of Environment and the Environmental Appeal Board (EAB) about the relationship between CHH and Active Earth.

Justice Sewell also ruled that the EAB “appears to have applied different standards” for the SRA than it did for MoE staff, and that it “did not act fairly in the manner in which it received opinion evidence.”  He raised serious concerns about the Ministry of Environment’s process, and went to far as to say that this case “strikes at the heart of the integrity” of Ministry of Environment’s approval process.


These court challenges have been enormously costly.  The CVRD case is payed for by residents of the Cowichan Valley (we did receive $10,000 from Union of BC Municipalities, and we have applied for additional funding from them).  The SRA, under the leadership of Calvin Cook, has been doggedly fundraising for years to cover its legal fees, and the lawyers who fought the case – Sean Hern and Robert Anderson – have been significant contributors themselves.

The travesty is that these cases should never have been necessary.  The BC Liberal government should have respected the CVRD’s zoning bylaw, and not allowed the landfill based on the fact that it was not a permitted activity according to our zoning.

And the Ministry of Environment should have heeded the warnings of independent scientists who provided convincing evidence that the location was wholly unsuitable for a contaminated landfill.  What those experts said would happen – that contaminants would leach out of the site and enter our environment – has been happening for the last several months.  (See Mary, the problem is getting worse.)

Had the government acted to protect our water and our community, we would not have had to spend nearly $2 million fighting them.  This is a nearly unfathomable injustice, and I strongly urge the government to consider how they will remedy this, and compensate the people of Shawnigan.

Standing Up, Standing Together, Standing Strong

But there has been a silver lining.  We have come to be a deeply connected, caring, and united community, and we have learned how to work together.  And for this I am truly grateful.

We have been steadfast for years, our determination never wavering – even in some of the toughest moments.  And we have helped each other through these incredibly challenging years by being kind, caring, and compassionate.  And we never gave up hope that we would succeed – because we knew all along that we were on the side of truth.

Thank you to all who have helped in all aspects this effort.  So much has gone into it over the last four and a half years: the fundraisers, the petition with 15,000 signatures, the early morning protests, the endless meetings, the daily monitoring of the site, the tweets, the posts, helicopter day, the support of the local schools, the photos, the drone shots, the demonstrations, the rallies at the legislature, the support from our MLAs and MPs, the letters, the articles, the endless research, the song-writing, the video-making, the coffee and cookie deliveries, and them many, many hugs when we really needed them. Most of all the commitment to work together as a community – we have shown what can be accomplished when we decide to stand together. It has been an epic effort by the Shawnigan community, and we should all be proud of what we’ve accomplished together.

I’ve never doubted for a moment that we would win this fight.  And now, we’re nearly there.

Stay strong, Shawnigan.











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:


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-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 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.

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 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 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:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

What will it take?

What will it take for Mary Polak and Christy Clark to take real action on the serious concerns being raised by the citizens of Shawnigan Lake?

Why is the government downplaying the impacts that South Island Aggregates/Cobble Hill Holdings (SIA/CHH) contaminated landfill is already having on our environment?

And if the provincial government won’t act, due to their pro-industry at all costs ideological stance, then what will it take for the federal government, in particular the ministries of Fisheries and Environment, to step in and respond?

Are we in BC at the mercy of regulatory agencies that are not doing their jobs because of a political mandate from above?  Is the Shawnigan Lake watershed at risk because the BC government has gone too far with deregulation under its “Professional Reliance Model”?

A report outlined in a January 28th Globe and Mail article indicates that this is what has been happening at the federal level. ‘Environment Canada Officers Failed to Uphold the Law: Report’:

globe and mail - failure of EC

In Shawnigan Lake, we have experienced a blatant lack of regard for concerns that have been documented and submitted to the Ministry of Environment (MoE) and Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM).  It seems that these agencies have even ignored their own data and evidence in order to ensure the uninterrupted operations of a contaminated soil landfill at the headwaters of our watershed.  Ministry staff rely on the company’s own reports and monitoring, creating a “fox guarding the hen house scenario” – another weakness of Environment Canada that was identified in the recent report:

EC and corps

Given the many concerns that have been raised over several years about the impacts the SIA/CHH site is having on the environment, and the tendency towards non-enforcement on the part of both MoE and MEM, residents are growing increasingly uneasy with the government’s inaction.

Below are a few of the most grievous examples.


From the beginning, the prospect of having a contaminated soil landfill in our watershed has raised concerns about the potential impacts to our groundwater.  The Lowen Hydro-geology report from 2013 identifies that there is groundwater at the site:

Lowen - groundwater

In June 2015, Ministry of Environment (MoE) released a report on compliance and monitoring at the SIA/CHH site. (MoE Report: Cobble Hill Holdings Compliance and Monitoring June 2015)

Included in the report are results of groundwater samples collected by MoE in April 2015, which were compared to the results from the “Qualified Professionals”, Active Earth.  (The relationship between Active Earth and SIA/CHH has received enormous scrutiny since a document that appears to show a 50-50 profit-sharing agreement was delivered to the Shawnigan Residents Association: See Vancouver Sun Story.)

These results, and the Ministry’s response to them, are disturbing.

MoE vs CHH results

At Monitoring Well 1S, Ministry tests show nine metals exceeding drinking water guidelines, and at Monitoring Well 2, three metals exceeding guidelines.  Indeed, Ministry data strongly suggest groundwater down-slope of the SIA/CHH site is contaminated with lead, arsenic and uranium at levels more than double the BC Contaminated Sites Regulation standard for drinking water.

At the same time Active Earth, the company’s “Qualified Professionals” failed to produce recent monitoring results from these wells, despite this being a requirement of the permit, and the year-old results they did produce are nearly universally different from the Ministry results.

MOE states in their report that:  “there was little consistency in how the MOE lab results deviated from the CHH results. Concentrations were considerably higher for some parameters and much lower for other parameters.”

But this is not actually the case. In the case of Monitoring Well S1, CHH results are higher than MoE for only dissolved arsenic (1.1 times higher) and nitrite (2.27 times higher). For all other results, the MOE values are on average 34 times higher than CHH values.

What are we to infer from the fact that MoE staff are stating conclusions that are not supported by the data they are presenting in the report?  Why does it seem that MoE staff are determined to make it appear that there aren’t problems – either with the data or the discrepancies?

In their report on Professional Reliance, the UViC Environmental Law Centre identified many problems with this “hands-off” approach to industry that has been adopted by the Chrisy Clark government.  Are we in Shawnigan the victims of this ideological model?

professional deference

(See also this February 4th Vancouver Sun Article by Stephen Hume.)

Surface Water

Concerns about surface water have also been long-standing.

MoE consistently adheres to its messaging that water leaving the site has to meet BC Drinking Water and Aquatic Life Guidelines.

What they consistently will not address, however, is the evidence that water leaving the site is accumulating contaminates.

Andrew Weaver’s recent water samples of the stream that exits the western edge of the SIA/CHH site onto the neighbouring CVRD park show that sodium levels are seven times higher than in the water in Shawnigan Creek above the site.  Weaver also found sulphur levels in the stream at 33 mg/L, while sulphur undetectable above the site.  (More Samples, More Questions.)

MoE’s testing of surface water from the site in November 2015 found Sulphur at 23.2 mg/L from the settling pond discharge (Nov 23 MoE report) and 56.1 mg/L 15 m west of the discharge point (Nov 17 MoE report).

Here are the questions MoE and Mary Polak will not answer:

  • Where is the sulphur and sodium coming from?
  • Could they be coming the soil that’s been shipped in from Pacific Coast Terminals, which is high in sulphur and sodium?
  • If so, how are metals that are in that soil, which is supposed to be “contact soil” (ie. all water that comes into contact with it is treated in the water treatment system), showing up in the water leaving the site that makes its way to Shawnigan Creek and Shawnigan Lake?
  • What are the cumulative impacts of these and other contaminates that are being introduced to the freshwater environment?
  • Why does MoE insist that unless there is an immediate health risk, they won’t take action, which ignores the question of long-term cumulative impacts?

The implications of this approach is that the company will be allowed to dump until finally the levels of contaminates in the surface water exceed drinking water guidelines.  But by then, isn’t it too late? How will MoE approach the task of removing those contaminates from our watershed?

Fly Ash

For weeks on end, citizens of Shawnigan documented in photos and videos fly ash being blasted into the contaminated soil at the SIA/CHH site – with much of the material floating away and off into the “non-contact” areas of the quarry (ie. the water from these areas is not treated), then beyond into the nearby trees and water in billowing clouds of dust.

The fly ash is being used to stabilize the very wet soil that’s been brought from Pacific Coast Terminals in Port Moody.

fly ash 1

Fly ash is a residue of coal combustion.  A search on its properties reveals that fly ash is not something any community would want blowing around its watershed.

coal ash

An email to MEM from a concerned Shawnigan citizen resulted in this response:

fly ash response from MEM

The end result?  Fly ash still billowing, but now the workers are wearing protective masks.  What about the protection of the Shawnigan watershed and drinking water, where the toxins from this material accumulate?

fly ash 3

We have been raising our concerns about the fly ash with MoE since December, with no result.  Here is the last response received from the Ministry’s “Compliance Officer”, received January 5th:

fly ash - caunce response

While section 2.10 the MoE permit requires that “fugitive dust created within the operation area be suppressed”, beyond the requirement that workers wear masks, we have seen no action taken on this issue.


In the spring of 2015, MoE did a “Historical Records Review” of SIA’s dumping activities on Lot 21, the northern piece of SIA’s Stebbings Rd property.

Lot 23 & Lot 21

Concerns about the soil that’s been dumped on this site are long-standing, with reports of dumping of industrial waste, tires, and contaminated fill having been made to MEM since 2008.  Testing of the water that is leaching off the bottom of Lot 21 and directly into Shawnigan Creek has been done by local residents and by Andrew Weaver.  Weaver’s results and analyses, which can be found on his website – water samples & sediment samples – raise concerns about a number of contaminates in the run-off, including iron, lead, thorium, and chromium.

MoE intended to review SIA’s records to determine if contaminated soil had been improperly dumped at the site between 2008 and 2013.

There was a problem, however.  The records given to MoE via MEM could not conclusively be linked to SIA’s operations.

Records review 2

Essentially, MoE did an investigation into the historical records of the SIA, but admits that the records they investigated “cannot be directly linked to the company and Lot 21.”

And even the records they did review “did not contain adequate information” to determine the origin, deposition location, or quality of the soils dumped at Lot 21, “assuming Lot 21 is actually the deposition site.”

What kind of government agency allows this to happen? If I were ordered by CRA to submit financial records for an audit, but instead produced my neighbour’s records, would the CRA be fine with this?

And the conclusions MoE draws from its review of SIA’s records?

Records review 3

Does this mean that MoE will demand that SIA/CHH produce accurate records?  Does it mean that MoE will further investigate the soils that have been dumped on the property?


Here’s the final statement on  MoE’s Information Sheet on SIA/CHH Historical Record Review:

Records review next steps

Where does this leave us?

Minister of Environment Mary Polak has said on more than one occasion in the Legislature that MoE staff ensure that public health and the environment is kept safe, and that they do so “independent of political interference.”

Yet to the residents of Shawnigan Lake, it seems possible that there is political influence or pressure.  Just as the report from Environment Canada indicates that staff aligned their actions to the Harper government’s priorities, could it be that MoE staff are aligning their actions to the “priorities” of Christy Clark’s government?

In 2013, Clark’s mandate letter to Environment Minister Mary Polak puts an emphasis not on protection of the environment, but “acceptable impact and mitigation strategies when faced with project approval decisions.”

mandate letter to polak 2013

Is what is happening in Shawnigan a “mitigation strategy”?

Flint Michigan and Shawnigan Lake BC

In Flint,  it’s becoming clear that authorities in Michigan dismissed growing concerns of the residents about the taste and appearance of their drinking water, and the growing incidences of rashes,  illness and weakness.

What’s more disturbing is the question raised in a recent New Yorker article:

Flint question New Yorker

In their downplaying of concerns abut Flint’s water, Michigan authorities and Governor Snyder stated that the issues were “aesthetic” – and therefore not relevant to drinking water guidelines.  (This can be seen in this CNN article: Five striking emails on the Flint water crisis.)

This same dismissal of residents’ concerns – that the issues are aesthetic – was also used by Mary Polak to downplay MoE’s test results that showed metals that exceeding drinking water guidelines.

“Adaptive Management”

From the outset, the Ministry of Environment has said that they would require strict adherence to the permit conditions at this site. But this message seems to have changed in November 2015.

In its response to the non-compliance events on November 13, when a stream of water was discovered flowing off the SIA/CHH site and onto the neighbouring CVRD park, MoE issued a variety of letters and information sheets.

In the Information Sheet on Cobble Hill Holdings / South Island Aggregates Summary of Water Requirements, MoE states the following:

adaptive management

Is the “adaptive management model” MoE’s mitigation strategy for the SIA/CHH site? Is this the best this government agency can do when it comes to protecting drinking water for 12,000 people?

We demand better of this government.

The health of an entire community is not an acceptable risk, and an adaptive management model is not an acceptable approach to protecting drinking water.

It is time for the Minister of Environment to put aside her political priorities and do her sworn duty.  It is time for Minister Polak to take immediate action to stop the harm that is being done in the Shawnigan watershed.