Environment Minister Mary Polak touched off impromptu celebrations in Shawnigan Lake Thursday by cancelling the permit that allowed a quarry to receive and store contaminated soil upstream from the lake.
Polak announced that Cobble Hill Holdings Ltd. failed to meet the ministry’s demands for more information after its permit was suspended last month.
“The company was given 15 business days to provide three required documents and submitted only two prior to the deadline,” she said.
“Specifically, the company failed to provide the province with adjusted financial security in the form of an irrevocable letter of credit.”
Polak said the company was given numerous opportunities to deal with outstanding issues of non-compliance and repeatedly missed deadlines.
“Ministry staff are taking actions to ensure material on the property is managed in a way that does not present a risk to human health or the environment,” she said.
Victoria lawyer John Alexander, who acts for Cobble Hill Holdings, said his clients need time to review Polak’s decision.
“This comes as a shock to the company, after it worked hard to answer the ministry’s concerns within the time provided,” he said.
“The company will need to see, review, and get advice on the cancellation letter before making any further comments.”
Sonia Furstenau, a director with the Cowichan Valley Regional District, said people began gathering at the Shawnigan House coffee shop as news of Polak’s decision reached the village.
“There were hugs and cheers and even a few tears,” she said.
iMany residents have been fighting for years to get the permit revoked, fearing contaminants would leach from the Stebbings Road quarry and pollute the lake, a source of drinking water in the region.
“We, as a community, are overjoyed as this is what we’ve been fighting for, for four years,” Furstenau said. “We knew from the start that this day would come and we are ecstatic that it’s finally here.”
Furstenau, who helped lead the campaign against the quarry, said Polak’s decision is a testament to a community’s ability to fight back. “This has been about a community coming together and working really effectively toward a goal and to protect its own future.”
The next step in the battle will be to get the contaminated soil removed, she said.
Polak declined to speculate on what will happen to soil already deposited in the quarry.
“All contaminated soil is not created equal, so the appropriate treatment of that soil will be determined in conjunction with the work that our staff will do,” she told reporters.
Cobble Hill Holdings remains responsible for the site, she said. “Just because the permit is cancelled, doesn’t mean that the company no longer has obligations on the site. Quite the contrary, they still are the ones who are responsible for the site and for maintaining it properly and dealing with any remediation necessary.”
If the company fails to fulfil its obligations, Polak said, the government will not hesitate to take legal action.
She said it’s the first time a minister has ever used powers under the Environmental Management Act to cancel a permit.
“It means that one must be very thoughtful and careful to ensure that one has taken every other action possible before resorting to what really is an unprecedented step.”
Polak suspended the site’s permit on Jan. 27, but said her decision was unrelated to a B.C. Supreme Court decision in which a judge stayed the permit and ordered the Environmental Appeal Board to revisit the file.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Sewell found the engineering firm that designed the storage facility and did the site’s technical assessment had an ownership interest in the project. The arrangement was withheld from both the government, which issued the permit in 2013, and the appeal board, which upheld the permit in 2015, the judge said.
Sewell overturned the appeal board’s decision and said that, if it were up to him, he would have no difficulty setting aside the permit, because the technical assessment “was prepared by persons who were biased in favour of approving the project.”
Cowichan Valley NDP MLA Bill Routley and B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver both criticized the government for failing to act sooner.
“We told them there were problems,” Routley said. “They wouldn’t listen. They just went forward with it anyway and look at the mess we have today.”