Malahat chief resigns amid allegations over fees from soil dump

The chief of the Malahat First Nation has resigned over allegations that he was receiving a consulting fee from the operators of a controversial soil dump near Shawnigan Lake.

The allegations, which have not been proved in court, are contained in the latest filing by the Shawnigan Residents’ Association, which is fighting to shut down a contaminated soil landfill owned by Cobble Hill Holdings and operated as South Island Aggregates. No response has been filed to date, but the time to file a response has not expired.

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The association alleges that recently disclosed documents show the companies and their partners paying Malahat Chief Michael Harry a “consulting fee per tonne of soil.”

Lawrence Lewis, Malahat’s chief executive officer, confirmed Tuesday that “due to recent allegations,” Harry stepped down as the elected chief effective Monday “while these matters are being investigated.”

“I think Chief Harry, in light of these allegations, has done the right thing,” Lewis said in an interview.

“He’s stepped aside [to] take his personal matters and his relationships out of the equation as far as the nation is concerned, so that we can continue on with the important work that we’re doing.”

Lewis said he had no idea whether the allegations are accurate, but said they appear to suggest a “personal relationship” between Harry and the site’s operators.

“I can’t comment on it,” he said. “I wasn’t aware of it. The nation wasn’t aware of it, so I can’t speak to it.”

Harry could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

In 2013, the B.C. government granted Cobble Hill Holdings a permit to receive up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year at its Stebbings Road quarry. The Environmental Appeal Board upheld the permit this year.

The residents’ association is pushing to stay the board’s ruling after uncovering what the association says is a secret profit-sharing deal between the site’s owners and Active Earth Engineering, which was hired to do the environmental risk assessment.

The residents claim documentation of the deal, which was given to the association anonymously, placed the engineers in a conflict of interest and raises questions about the site’s safety. Residents fear contaminants will leach from the site and pollute their water supply.

Mike Kelly, Cobble Hill’s president, declined comment on Tuesday. He said previously that a deal was signed in February 2013, but he said it was never acted upon.

“The parties simply changed their minds and the agreement was abandoned thereafter,” he stated.

In its latest court filing, however, the residents’ association says Active Earth has disclosed 77 pages of emails that show the agreement “was in no respects abandoned.”

The association argues that the emails show Cobble Hill Holdings, South Island Aggregates and the engineers working closely together in a new company named South Island Remediation through 2013 and into 2014.

The association says the documents show the partners exchanging information on a range of business activities, including finances, budgets, invoices and job summaries, including several that show an “M. Harry” receiving consulting fees per tonne of soil.

The association alleges that the documents refer to Malahat Chief Michael Harry.

Calvin Cook, president of the Shawnigan Residents’ Association, called Harry’s resignation “unfortunate” in light of his hard work on behalf of the Malahat people.

“The Malahat band has a lot of tremendous people working for them and they’ve got a lot on the go; they’ve got a lot of positive developments.”

The Malahat have appointed Coun. Tom Harry as the interim chief, while Lewis said he will continue to handle the nation’s business and operations. Tom Harry is Michael Harry’s uncle.

“We continue to focus our efforts to look after the nation’s interests, its citizens and its business enterprises,” Lewis said.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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