Shawnigan Lake residents took their fight against a contaminated soil dump to the steps of the B.C. legislature on Wednesday.
More than 700 people rallied on the lawn to protest a government permit that will allow South Island Aggregates to receive up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year at a quarry on Stebbings Road near Shawnigan Lake.
Fearing that toxins will leach into their water supply, residents urged the government to rescind the permit, which was recently upheld by the Environmental Appeal Board.
Protesters, including more than 400 students and staff from the private Shawnigan Lake School, waved “Save Our Shawnigan Water” signs and chanted “Rescind the Permit Now.”
“This permit will be overturned,” said Calvin Cook, president of the Shawnigan Residents’ Association. “We have no other choice. It’s too important to my neighbours. It’s too important to my friends. It’s too important for the citizens of B.C.
“If this can happen in a designated watershed, it can happen anywhere.”
NDP leader John Horgan and former Liberal candidate Steve Housser vowed to work across party lines to overturn the permit.
“We all understand that this is not about Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and Conservatives,” said Horgan. “This is about the public interest. This is about protecting what needs to be protected.”
“A 10-year-old can tell you that a toxic waste dump in a watershed is wrong,” Housser added. “Why play Russian roulette with our water?”
Mike Kelly, president of parent company Cobble Hill Holdings Ltd., said the site is in full compliance with its permits and opened for business last week.
He said in a statement that the permit was “heavily scrutinized and peer reviewed” and that any water leaving the site will meet drinking-water-quality standards.
“The scientific debate is over, and ended with the decision of the extremely thorough, well-educated, three-person Environmental Appeal Board panel,” he said.
“This is now entirely a political issue, and because of this, we have no intention of fighting the outspoken few that are contesting our permit and our business plans.”
The protesters at the legislature, however, offered proof that there are more than a few outspoken people. They presented Cowichan Valley NDP MLA Bill Routley with a petition signed by 15,339 people calling on the government to rescind the permit.
“Respectfully, I suggest that it is critical that our government listen to these petitioners, as they very much cross all the political boundaries,” Routley told the legislature.
Environment Minister Mary Polak said the decision to grant a permit was based on a “scientific evaluation” by professionals.
“In this case, the community then took that decision to the Environmental Appeal Board, which is an independent tribunal,” she said.
“Again, it is made up of people who have the scientific expertise. They reviewed the permit and, after significant consideration, they upheld the permit.”
Nevertheless, Polak said her staff conducted tests Wednesday at the approved site, known as Lot 23, as well as at an adjoining property, known as Lot 21.
Staff tested groundwater, surface water and soil at the sites, as well as sediment and surface water in Shawnigan Creek, her office said.
Cowichan Valley Regional District employees were on hand to monitor the testing, Polak said.
“So we’re working very hard to try to address the concerns that the community has.”
Polak said the ministry will take enforcement action if it finds any evidence that the company is disobeying its permit.
Sonia Furstenau, the regional district’s representative for Shawnigan, remains skeptical that anything will come of the testing.
“I’m not holding my breath,” she said. “There’s nothing that has inspired confidence in me so far with the Ministry of Environment.”
Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver said deep staff cuts, beginning in 2001, have left the ministry without sufficient resources to enforce its own rules and regulations.
“I don’t think we would have got this far if some of the concerns and criticism that had been raised were able to be dealt with by ministries that were [properly] staffed,” he said.