Comment: Shawnigan fighting to protect its drinking water

This is the true, and at times unbelievable, story of a community fighting for its future. The ending of this story has not yet been written, but for the people of Shawnigan Lake, the only acceptable ending is one in which five million tonnes of contaminated soil are not dumped in their watershed.

This story begins in May 2012, when the community received notification that South Island Aggregates was applying for a permit from the Environment Ministry to accept 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year for 50 years at its gravel mine site on Stebbings Road. The mine is on a hillside above the south end of Shawnigan Lake. Shawnigan Creek, the main feeder creek to the lake, runs directly through the SIA property. The lake provides drinking water for 7,000 Shawnigan residents.

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More than 200 local residents attended a public information meeting in May 2012, and about 350 people attended a public meeting in July 2012. At these meetings, the opposition to the plan presented by SIA was almost unanimous, with only two parties voicing support: a woman named Nikki (later revealed to be SIA owner Marty Block’s daughter) and Michael Harry, the chief of the Malahat First Nation.

The greatest concern to the people is the threat to the drinking water; the contaminants listed in the permit include dioxins, furans, phenols and a myriad other toxins and chemicals known to be harmful to human health.

The people of Shawnigan Lake were supposed to be reassured by the claim made by Jeff Taylor from Active Earth, the engineering company hired by SIA, that their watershed would be protected by a 76-metre layer of “virtually impermeable bedrock” underneath the site.

The middle of the story has been tragically predictable. Despite the overwhelming resistance in the community and the opposition expressed directly to the Ministry of Environment, the ministry issued the permit on Aug. 21, 2013. Among the list of opponents were the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the Capital Regional District, MP Jean Crowder, MLA Bill Routley, provincial Liberal candidate Steve Housser along with candidates for all the other parties, the Vancouver Island Health Authority and provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall. In all, there were 300 written submission to the ministry raising concerns related to the potentially negative environmental, health and social impacts.

Now we are in the third act. The Shawnigan Residents’ Association and the CVRD, along with local residents John and Lois Hayes and Rick Saunders have filed appeals to the Environmental Appeal Board. Lawyers representing the SIA, as well as lawyers for the Ministry of Environment, are defending the permit.

We have learned a great deal during the six weeks of EAB hearings, confirming many fears of Shawnigan residents.

We’ve learned that there is no “virtually impermeable bedrock” under the site. Instead, there is indeed an aquifer and fractured bedrock, with significant movement of water through the rock. Eight independent geo-scientists and engineers testified about the project, all saying there was inadequate information about the site and a disturbing lack of planning.

We’ve learned from engineer Lalith Liyanage, who assessed the water-treatment facilities at SIA, that it is a “water treatment design that raises a lot of questions and some fairly significant doubts as to whether it can successfully handle the scale of water contamination that it may have to address under both operating and post-closure conditions.”

In a community where opposition has been overwhelming, we have learned that the only public support that SIA received, which was from the Malahat First Nation, was cemented in a “confidential agreement” between the two parties, which provided for a list of expensive favours from the SIA in return for the Malahat support.

Environment Ministry Mary Polak, referring to the sewage treatment plan for Victoria, has stated that she will not force a project on to an unwilling community. We in Shawnigan intend to hold her to that.

The hearings will continue this week. If the EAB panel chooses to revoke the permit, it will be an ending to this story that the people of Shawnigan Lake will celebrate. If the panel chooses to uphold the permit, the people of this small community, who have raised more than $200,000 for legal fees, will appeal the ruling. To give up this fight — a fight for clean, drinkable water — would be to give up on the future of Shawnigan Lake.

Sonia Furstenau is a high school teacher at Dwight School in Shawnigan Lake.

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