Minister threatens to cancel permit for Shawnigan quarry

B.C.’s environment minister is threatening to suspend or cancel the permit that allows a rock quarry near Shawnigan Lake to receive and store contaminated soil.

Mary Polak warned quarry owner Cobble Hill Holdings Ltd. in recent letters of its failure to comply with the permit and a number of missed deadlines for submitting reports and updated plans.

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She has given the company until Dec. 20 to respond.

Polak said in an interview that she decided to intervene after ministry staff became concerned about the company’s response or lack of response to compliance issues.

“This certainly escalates matters,” she said.

Victoria lawyer Aurora Faulkner-Killam, who acts for Cobble Hill Holdings, said the company is striving to meet the ministry’s requirements.

“I know that they’re working toward making sure that the minister is satisfied with whatever she needs,” she said.

Faulkner-Killam said the letters show the ministry’s diligence and the consistent attention it pays to any concerns at the quarry.

“I do think that this is an indication that protection of the environment is still paramount,” she said. “That’s really clear in the ministry’s approach and the company’s response.”

Sonia Furstenau, who represents Shawnigan Lake on the Cowichan Valley Regional District board, welcomed the minister’s involvement, but called on her to pull the permit.

She and other area residents fear contaminants will leach from the quarry and pollute the lake and drinking water supply.

“I’m pleased to see the minister engaged,” she said.

“I would like to see her take the next step, obviously. It’s hard to dispute that this company has demonstrated that it’s unable to stay in compliance with this permit.”

Polak first wrote Cobble Hill Holdings on Oct. 11 — three days after a heavy storm led to a spill of water that had been in contact with contaminated soil.

She listed several other compliance issues, including:

• the water treatment system exceeding the maximum rate of discharge;

• the turbidity of the settling pond discharge exceeding the guideline for aquatic life;

• failure to submit an updated closure plan, a revised cost estimate and security; and

• failure to submit reports on contact and non-contact water management systems as required.

Polak initially gave the company three days to respond. Marty Block of Cobble Hill Holdings wrote back Oct. 13 to argue that suspending or cancelling the permit was not warranted.

“In the words of your own staff, this is the best run facility on the island (if not the whole province),” he wrote.

Block said the company’s non-compliance for providing reports and updated plans was due to an ongoing court case that had effectively shut down operations.

“While our permit is in the hands of the courts, there is no principled reason to be conducting these studies, which are intended to enhance the future operation over the operating life of the permit,” he said.

The company committed to having the water treatment reports to the ministry within four months of a court victory.

The B.C. Court of Appeal ruled in the company’s favour on Nov. 3, paving the way for the quarry to resume receiving and storing contaminated soil.

The court overturned an earlier decision that halted shipments of soil to the Stebbings Road quarry on the grounds that it was operating as a landfill in violation of a district zoning bylaw.

The following day, Polak sent a followup letter to the company restating the compliance issues and setting the Dec. 20 deadline.

“The non-compliances related to the updated closure plan, revised cost estimate, revised security, and reports detailing the review of contact and non-contact water management systems, are significant in nature and must be addressed in a timely manner,” she stated.

Despite frequent calls for her to pull the permit, Polak said her decisions have to be based on evidence.

“It is not open to me to pull the permit of an operation simply because the political heat has raised too high,” she said.

“I actually have to look at it from the standpoint of what recommendations my staff are making and whether or not it’s reasonable on scientific grounds to make that determination to pull their permit or suspend it.”

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