Comment: Contaminated-soil dump breach was avoidable

The Oct. 8 breach of 14,000 to 28,000 litres of contaminated contact water from the landfill site in the Shawnigan watershed was entirely avoidable.

The B.C. Ministry of Environment could have listened to the experts who have weighed in from the beginning of this process, warning that this location is wholly unsuitable for a contaminated landfill. They could have listened to the Shawnigan Lake community, which has never been willing to accept the very real (and now proven) risk that this site poses.

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Or the ministry could have followed through with its own directives to the company that owns this site.

Instead, the ministry gave extra chances, extended deadlines and imposed no consequences on a company that has once again proven itself to be incapable of handling the volumes of rainwater that fall at this site.

Almost a year ago, on Nov. 13, 2015, residents of Shawnigan Lake woke up to heavy rain, and their minds turned to the contaminated soil sitting at the top of their watershed. By the end of that day, as a result of uncontrolled water flows coming off the contaminated landfill site owned by Cobble Hill Holdings and operated by South Island Resource Management, Island Health issued a “do not use water” advisory that lasted five days.

The Environment Ministry issued a non-compliance report and a letter to Cobble Hill Holdings on Nov. 18 that stated: “Concerns are raised regarding the permittee’s ability to ensure effective operation of the authorized works or to manage unauthorized discharges in accordance with the permit.”

This was followed by a Dec. 3 letter from the ministry that called for a full review of water management on the site.

Documents recently obtained through a freedom-of-information request reveal that the company repeatedly refused to comply with this directive from the ministry.

On Jan. 22, 2016, the Environment Ministry requested that the “proposed scope, terms of reference, description and schedule for the Stantec water-management review be submitted by March 31, 2016.”

But the company did not meet the March 31 deadline for the water-management review. Instead, they stated in a May 15 response that the review was “to be reassessed with MoE given present circumstances.”

A May 26 email from the ministry to Cobble Hill Holdings acknowledged that the company “proposes the delay and/or re-assessment of several workplan items,” including the contact water-management review. In this letter, the ministry raised concerns about “much higher reported on-site precipitation, the larger uncovered area of the landfill and ongoing [2016] non-contact and contact water permit non-compliances.”

The ministry directly requested an updated work plan and schedule, including a contact water-management review.

SIRM responded on June 9 and June 15, each time proposing to “significantly delay the non-contact water-management review and to not proceed with a contact water-management review.”

Further non-compliances found at the site prompted the ministry to issue a June 28 warning letter and a June 29 letter regarding water management. The warning letter identified non-compliance with seven sections of the Environment Ministry permit. The water-management letter specified an updated schedule for contact and non-contact water management reviews and implementation schedules.

On June 30, Todd Mizuik of SIRM responded to the ministry with outright defiance. In his letter, he informed the ministry that “as there are no issues with contact water management, SIRM is not proceeding with a contact water study.”

Three months later, on Oct. 8, thousands of litres of contaminated water breached a flimsy barrier and flowed untreated off the CHH site, directly into the Cowichan Valley Regional District park adjacent to the landfill. Sampling of the water shows iron more than 14 times higher than drinking water guidelines, copper 27 times higher and turbidity 416 times higher than acceptable guidelines.

Why did the government do nothing when a company openly defied a requirement from Ministry of Environment staff to undertake a review of how it handles contaminated water at its site? Why did the ministry tolerate ongoing non-compliance and ongoing resistance from this company? And why is Environment Minister Mary Polak now stating publicly that she has no issues with this company or this site?

The stream into which the contaminated contact water was discharged joins Shawnigan Creek. Time will tell what the cumulative impacts of these contaminants will be to the environment, to drinking-water quality and to the wildlife that depends on this ecosystem, including the thousands of coho salmon returning to Shawnigan Creek this very week.

It is time for the Environment Ministry to do the right thing. Admit this is a failed experiment, revoke the permit and order the soil removed from our watershed.

Sonia Furstenau is the CVRD area director for Shawnigan Lake.

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