Shawnigan Lake water warning brings calls to close soil landfill

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak faced renewed calls Monday to shut down a contaminated-soil landfill near Shawnigan Lake, with health officials warning people not to use water from the south end of the lake.

Polak told the legislature that preliminary tests show no threat to human health from water leaving the site.

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But residents say the health advisory proves the government should never have approved the landfill in a watershed that supplies drinking water to 12,000 people.

“You can’t tell the people of Shawnigan that the engineering is going to protect us, or that the permit is going to protect us, because we have evidence now of the total and utter failure of that engineering,” said Sonia Furstenau, a director with the Cowichan Valley Regional District.

Island Health issued a do-not-use-water advisory Friday due to “a suspected overflow of water” from the landfill site owned by Cobble Hill Holdings Ltd. The company has a permit to accept and store up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year at its Stebbings Road quarry uphill from Shawnigan Lake.

The advisory warned people against drawing water from the south end of the lake for drinking, bathing, personal hygiene or food preparation.

Medical Health Officer Dr. Murray Fyfe said Island Health issued the advisory after receiving reports from the Environment Ministry about water leaving the landfill site. It was unclear whether the water was run-off, or whether there had been a breach of the site’s containment system, Fyfe said.

He said there are no records that anybody has a permit to draw water from the south end of the lake. “But, to be extra cautious, we thought, ‘Well, in case somebody’s doing this without a permit, we’ll issue an advisory.’”

Mike Kelly, president of Cobble Hill Holdings, said in a statement that an engineering team has examined the site’s treatment and containment systems and found them to be functioning as designed.

“There was no breach of containment, discharge or overflow,” he said. “Heavy rainfall events were anticipated and incorporated into the site water management design. We are confident that [Ministry of Environment] testing will confirm this and hope the community will be assured that the site is functioning properly, safely and exactly as promised.”

The Shawnigan Residents Association, which is fighting to overturn the site permit in B.C. Supreme Court, called on Polak Monday to shut down the landfill or resign as minister.

“People are really, really upset,” said association president Calvin Cook. “This is something that the residents have been saying would happen.”

Cook said the Environmental Appeal Board, which upheld the site permit in March, assured residents that site engineering would protect residents. “And it’s already failed,” he said.

In protest, residents blocked the entrance to the landfill Monday morning, turning aside a fuel truck and construction vehicle.

NDP Leader John Horgan, who questioned Polak in the legislature, called the Island Health advisory “the worst nightmare” for Shawnigan residents and urged the government to halt soil deliveries to the landfill.

“Clearly, the water advisory on Friday puts the lie to everything the minister has said over the past two years,” he said.

Polak countered that ministry officials, who approve and enforce permits free of political interference, will remain vigilant. “With permits that are dealing with very serious substances, it is important at all times to be cautious,” she said. “It is also important not to sow panic where we should not.”

B.C. Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver, meanwhile, called for an emergency debate of the issue in the legislature.

“Enough already,” he said in an interview. “Who’s liable? I think the ministry is liable for issuing permits when these people here, who are standing up for their rights to have access to fresh water, are taking essentially the government to court protect it. The government is absent. There’s a dereliction of duty, and heads should roll over this.’ ”

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