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.

16114590_1827393074216236_994554285343712368_n-3

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.

picture2

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.

gr

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.

unfairness

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.

picture4

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.

11-09-2016-site-23-13

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.

sewell-1sewell-2

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

img_5638

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.)

dsc07135

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.

Reflections on a Busy Week

Some weeks, my calendar tells a story in a snapshot.  This has been one of those weeks.

calendar-nov-21

The week began with two very different approaches to bringing about change.  I spent much of Monday at the Forest Hydrology Workshop, which was put on by the Cowichan Watershed Board.  We heard from experts on climate, hydrology, and forestry practices, and engaged in an abundance of solution-oriented discussion around how to ensure a balance between forestry and long-term protection of watersheds.

From there, I went to Victoria to attend a vigil against the proposed Kinder Morgan expansion.  Hundreds of citizens came together to peacefully convey the message that the conditions we face in the world today necessitate a transition away from fossil fuels, and that the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline is a step in the wrong direction. Expanding Kinder Morgan not only poses a serious risk to the coast and the coastal wildlife populations, it contributes to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions at a time when we need to be investing in renewable energy alternatives and dramatically reducing our fossil fuel emissions.

img_8926

While it is daunting to realize that we are facing extraordinary challenges, I am filled with hope and optimism to see the willingness of so many people to tackle these issues in a variety of ways, whether through informing ourselves of the most recent science on watersheds or sending a message to our government – what’s clear is that people are invested in having a say in the future of our province and our planet.

On Tuesday, Blaise attended the climate change discussion at CVRD while I prepared for an interview with Global TV about the recent changes the Ministry of Environment has made to the Contaminated Sites Regulations – changes that have included some decreases in allowable levels of contaminants, but also some extraordinary increases in other levels.  These changes have raised concerns not only among local governments, particularly in rural areas, but also among scientists and environmental advocates.

global-interview

Photo by Laura Colpitts

While my interview didn’t make it to the 2-minute news clip, I was most pleased that our local scientist Bernhard Juurlink was a part of the piece.  Bernie has broken down some of the increases that have been brought in with the new regulations.

contaminants-increased

I have called on the Ministry of Environment to provide independent, peer-reviewed science that justifies these increases in allowable levels.  At a time when we know that toxins have infiltrated our ecosystems and are showing up in our bodies, it seems hard to understand why a government would want to raise levels of contaminants, and it begs the question of whether or not we are seeing a similar situation to the one in the US where industry lobbying has resulted in increased allowable limits of chromium-6. A recent report from Environmental Working Group revealed that over 200 million Americans have unsafe levels of chromium-6 in their drinking water.

chromium

Ultimately, we need government to recognize that it has a duty to ensure the long-term protection of the citizens of BC and the ecosystems that we rely on for our survival.

Wednesday was a series of back-to-back meetings at the CVRD – ranging from conversations with MoTI about plans for Shawnigan’s roads in 2017 to meeting with stakeholders to discuss the potential of tourist accommodation in Shawnigan (I will share more on this possibility in the coming weeks), to learning about the next proposed steps for a South Sector Liquid Waste Management Plan.  We also had three CVRD meetings – Special Board meeting, Regional Engineering Services, and Regional Services – during which we discussed matters that included invasive species, solid waste disposal, economic development, airshed protection, and the Trans-Canada Trail.

Thursday and Friday were set aside for CVRD budget meetings.  We’re back in budget season at CVRD (the year’s second – the first budget season is in late summer), which means that the Directors need to approve each one of the budgets for CVRD’s 176 service functions.  Some of these functions are relatively straightforward, while others – solid waste, for example – are large and complex budgets that encompass a variety of activities.

It is one of the most challenging parts of the job, to try to find a balance between the vision of the Board, the recommendations of the staff, the desires of our communities, and the very real need to ensure that citizens are not subject to overly burdensome tax increases.  One of the factors exacerbating this challenge is the ‘downloading’ from higher levels of government.  Tax cuts at provincial and federal levels can often translate to local governments being put into a position of trying to fill in the gaps created when cuts are made to services that impact the lives of people in our communities.  Local governments are also increasingly bearing the economic brunt of climate change.  In the Cowichan, we’re having to deal with flooding as well as drought, and we’re also taking very seriously the need to assess our water supplies and the potential threats they face.  In Vancouver, the city is planning a long-term strategy for mitigating impacts from climate change, and recognizing that the costs will be significant – one recent news story outlines some of these challenges.

We have four full days set aside for budget discussions, and we have agreed to add another to review the overall impact and look for ways to try to reduce the requisition while ensuring that we are maintaining important services.

Thursday and Friday evenings brought opportunities to embrace the festive season.  We attended the very rainy Ladysmith Light Up on Thursday evening, and then the much less damp festivities in Duncan on Friday evening.  Both events were incredibly well attended and very enjoyable.

I am very much looking forward to the Shawnigan Village light up on Sunday December 4th from 3:30 – 6:30.

post card for 2016 XMAS.jpg

In amongst all the meetings and festivities last week, there were dozens of phone calls dealing with everything from the Elsie Miles revitalization to Ministry of Transportation plans and issues.  There are also hundreds of emails, many of which need follow-up; everything from ongoing concerns with what is happening at the contaminated landfill to appointing a new commission member.  I also needed to write an article for a local publication, do a live interview on CFAX on Thrusday and a recorded interview with Juice FM on Friday about the changes to Contaminated Sites Regulations, making the case that the province needs to create a proper plan for the contaminated soil that protects the water and soil of all communities, rather than creating unnecessary risks, particularly in rural areas.

On Saturday, it was lovely to attend the Shawnigan Lake Craft Fair and to see the incredible array of local businesses offering extraordinary and exceptional items.  We are truly an entrepreneurial community, and I am always amazed at the talent and innovation we have right here in our own neighbourhood.

 

So what are my reflections at the end of this busy week?

I am grateful to have the support of my husband, and I am also grateful for my Alternate Director Sierra Acton, who helps out in many ways and took on the task of organizing the annual CVRD Volunteer Appreciation Dinner.  I am also incredibly grateful for the support and kindness of so many in the community who help out in many, many ways (particularly the good fairy of coffee, who keeps me appropriately caffeinated, and the many good food fairies who are helping enormously).  My friends keep me laughing and feeling cared for, and my kids bring me joy.

With the many busy days in a row, I found myself truly enjoying and being present for quiet moments with family, hearing about the kids’ days at school or enjoying a meal together.  And while it can at times seems like there are a lot of balls in the air – and a lot of items on my to-do list – I feel fortunate and grateful to be doing work that serves the community and provides me with a true sense of purpose.

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.

IMG_5638.JPG

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.

dsc05777

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.

More rain, more concerns

It was the first heavy rainfall of the season – the kind of rain that roused us in the night with its persistent pounding on our roofs and windows.

It was the kind of rain that forced us to think of the 200,000 tonnes of contaminated soil sitting high up in our watershed.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0251.JPG

For weeks we’ve worried that the water collection system would not be able to deal with heavy rain pouring off the slope of the giant pile of contaminated soil.

 

Let’s go back to the Environmental Appeal Board’s decision to uphold the permit issued to Cobble Hill Holdings.  Here are a few statements from the EAB’s 120-page decision about the “multiple layers of protection” that the highly engineered site would provide:

 

delegate-issued-permit

 

panel-zero-risk

protection-of-groundwater

So how did the “multiple barriers” and “multiple layers of protection” fare in the rain today?

You decide.

 

 

 

Today’s rain was heavy, but in no way extreme.  And certainly not the 1-200 year rain event that this site was supposed to be able to handle, according to the EAB decision:

flood

To their credit, MoE sent out a Conservation Officer to assess what was happening.  By the time he arrived, however, the operators had brought in a vacuum truck – so he did not witness the trenches filled with water or the flow of contact water being stemmed with hay bales.  (Strange – there was no mention of hay bales or vacuum trucks during the EAB hearings or in the EAB decision.)

img_5488

The permit was upheld by the EAB in March 2015, and concerns of the citizens of Shawnigan Lake have mounted steadily ever since.  Over the last 11 months, MoE has issued nine public letters to CHH.  Minister Polak frames this as evidence that the Ministry staff are “doing their job” by “monitoring” the site.

I would argue that the ongoing issues at this site are evidence of what we have said from the very beginning: that this permit should never have been issued.  As one expert witness said during the EAB hearings, “this is crazy”.

And almost all of the actual monitoring at the site is done by committed community members who have refused to give up on protecting our watershed.

There is only one acceptable outcome to this story.  This permit must be revoked, and the soils that have been landfilled at this site must be removed.