Elizabeth May: ‘Don’t take chances with Island water’

Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May called it a “tragedy” on Monday that the provincial government has allowed a contaminated soil dump near Shawnigan Lake.

The MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands said it’s foolish to be putting water supplies at risk on Vancouver Island.

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“We should not be taking chances with our water,” said May. “As this summer continues, I think we’re going to recognize more by the week how much water is precious.”

May made the comments as she joined provincial NDP MLAs Doug Routley and Gary Holman, former provincial Liberal candidate Steve Housser and about 75 Shawnigan Lake residents on a protest line outside South Island Aggregates.

The protesters want the government to rescind a permit that allows the company to receive up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year at a quarry on Stebbings Road owned by Cobble Hill Holdings Ltd.

Fearing toxins will leach into the region’s water supply, the Shawnigan Residents’ Association has also filed a court petition seeking to overturn a March 20 decision of the Environmental Appeal Board that upheld the permit.

There were no confrontations at the line while May was there Monday. One pickup truck was prevented from entering the site.

The company did not respond to a request for comment. Mike Kelly, president of Cobble Hill Holdings, said in a recent email to the Times Colonist that the company would not be commenting or issuing statements in light of ongoing court action.

May said she was “very distressed” when the project was first approved despite widespread opposition from area residents. “I feel as though it’s a — I’ll use the word — tragedy that the provincial government wasn’t listening,” she said. “That we got to this point, where people are protesting something that is underway — that’s what you don’t want to have happen; you want to hear the concerns.”

Environment Minister Mary Polak has defended the decision to grant a permit, saying it was based on a “scientific evaluation,” which was upheld on appeal.

But critics say the process was flawed and relied too heavily on the company’s own experts.

“My understanding is that they feel they’ve done everything legally, by science,” said Housser, who ran unsuccessfully for the Liberals in the Cowichan Valley in 2013. “So there’s a refuge behind that. But I think they’re going to find that the science is a crock.”

Routley, MLA for Nanaimo-North Cowichan, said the government made a mess of what should have been a good-news story — the remediation of contaminated sites. “If they’d handled it more appropriately, everybody would be saying, ‘That’s a great thing they’re doing,’ ” he said. “Instead, they put it right over top of this watershed and created the predictable response.”

Routley said the government underestimated the community’s resolve and the growing opposition to the project. “It’s a pretty terrifying thing to think that your drinking water source is being imperilled by toxins,” he said.

Lindsey Henderson, who lives in Shawnigan Lake, said she’s worried for her children and grandchildren. “Just the idea of dumping toxic soil in a protected watershed is absurd.” She said the battle has ramifications for the rest of the province. “If this continues to go on here, then there’s no watershed that’s safe anywhere in British Columbia,” she said. “It’s not just about the 8,000 of us that live around the lake; it’s about the entire province.”

lkines@timescolonist.com

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