Comment: Shawnigan dumping permit should have been denied

As a former B.C. Liberal candidate for Cowichan Valley and still a strong B.C. Liberal supporter, it saddens me to point out the terrible mistake I believe the B.C. government is making in permitting a toxic-waste dump in the Shawnigan Lake watershed, the source of drinking water for 12,000 people.

Common sense should tell anyone that dumping nasty contaminants on top of an aquifer, beside a creek leading to a community’s drinking water, makes no sense.

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The government says the permit was issued by a “statutory decision-maker” and claims this insulates the process from politics, leaving the decision based solely on “science.” Sorry, but when you threaten to potentially poison drinking water, that’s political, however much the cabinet might wish to let ministry staff carry the can.

As to the “science,” the dump owners, South Island Aggregates, claimed their dump is on top of impermeable bedrock 75 metres thick, with no chance of toxic leachate seeping into the water supply.

The Environment Ministry accepted this, not because it did its own studies but because SIA’s engineers said it was so.

In a world of tight budgets, the Environment Ministry uses the qualified-professional model wherein it relies on the opinion of the proponent’s engineers. However, during the Shawnigan Residents Association challenge to the permit before the Environmental Appeal Board, the claim of 75 metres of solid bedrock crumbled in the face of strong indications the dump sits on fractured limestone very likely to leak.

Not to worry. The engineered solution is a polyethylene liner — a big plastic baggie, if you will — that is supposed to prevent leaks. Never mind that there is limited experience with these liners and it is estimated that all will eventually fail. In the case of SIA, this is almost guaranteed as the polyethylene will be used inside a still active quarry with blasting, not to mention the heavy equipment that will dump tons of contaminated material onto the thin plastic liner.

Despite the unproven liner technology, and other questions of law and fairness of process, the Environmental Appeal Board upheld SIA’s permit. Now the Shawnigan Residents’ Association must spend more money for a judicial review of a permit that should never have been entertained in the first place.

Not only is the liner technology unproven, SIA’s track record of breaching the Mines Ministry conditions under which it already operates — including trespass, encroachment and improper dumping on a neighbouring park — raises alarm bells about SIA’s reliability.

In recent days, I have seen some Liberal party messaging from the premier that she is concerned about the environment and wants to make it a priority along with economic growth. On first blush, it’s comforting that the head of this beautiful province wants to proclaim a solid commitment to the environment.

My consternation comes from how glaringly a toxic waste dump in a designated public watershed undercuts any claim of care for the environment.

We’ve already had the Mount Polley disaster to warn us about the dangers of “engineered solutions” in completely unsuitable locations. Let’s not have our government siding with another disaster in the making.

Steve Housser is a Shawnigan Lake resident and former B.C. Liberal candidate for Cowichan Valley.

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