The Cowichan Valley Regional District will likely try again to persuade the Ministry of Environment to cover the costs of sampling and monitoring of the groundwater along Fisher Road in Cobble Hill.
In a regional services committee meeting on Aug. 28, directors voted to recommend to the board to bring the issue up again in a meeting that has been scheduled between the CVRD and senior staff from the ministry at next month’s meeting of the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
Directors also voted to recommend to the board that staff from the CVRD continue discussions about the water testing with the Cobble Hill Aquifer Interagency Task Group, consisting of officials from several government ministries and Island Health, and local stakeholder groups, including the Cobble Hill Improvement District, and prepare a report on both initiatives for the next committee meeting in October.
Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, who is also the chairman of the regional services committee, said there is no lack of desire on behalf of the CVRD to sample and monitor the groundwater in the Fisher Road area.
“The challenge is that if we allow the senior level of government to abdicate its responsibility on this issue that it is responsible for under legislation, then we can expect it will do it again elsewhere,” Stone said.
In a staff report that was presented at the committee meeting on Aug. 28, environmental technologist Kate Miller said that while provincial funding has not yet been approved, she recommended that the CVRD continue to collaborate with the Cobble Hill Aquifer Interagency Task Group, the ministry and property owners to find solutions to address the costs of groundwater sampling and monitoring on Fisher Road.
But Miller also recommended that the CVRD not spend any of its money on the testing of Fisher Road’s groundwater, which she pointed out is the responsibility of senior levels of government.
The aquifer in the Fisher Road area is a known location of elevated nitrate concentrations in groundwater largely as a result of land-use activities, such as a greenhouse which is now closed, and composting operations that have operated there for years.
In a regional services committee meeting on May 22, Mike Wilson, the CVRD’s director for Cobble Hill, asked the district to consider spending $75,000 a year for five years for extensive monitoring and analysis of the groundwater.
When that request was sent back to staff for more information, the Cobble Hill Improvement District stepped forward and offered to do the sampling and monitoring, free of charge, but the offer has yet to be reviewed.
Some residents of Cobble Hill who attended the meeting on Aug. 28 expressed frustration with the process.
Don Harriet said it’s a prime example of why people don’t trust politicians.
“People feel disconnected from the process and there’s no more glaring example as to why that trust is broken than this,” he said.
Brian Carruthers, the CVRD’s CAO, said that at no time did the CVRD or its staff say that the sampling and monitoring of the groundwater should not be done; the question is where the money to pay for it is to come from.
“We want the Ministry of Environment to step in and take responsibility for this as it has done in other areas of the province,” he said.
“If we are not successful with that, then we’ll be back here looking for funding for the sampling and monitoring. If that happens, it will be up to you (the committee) to decide where that funding comes from.”
North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring asked Carruthers why the offer from the Cobble Hill Improvement to do the testing for free was not accepted.
Carruthers said that the offer was not denied and it may need to be explored, but staff’s preference at this time is to try to have the ministry pay for it before that option is considered.
He also pointed out that while the Cobble Hill Improvement District likely has skilled people who can do the testing, the Task Group has already done some testing and, over the long term, those tests have to be repeated in exactly the same manner to be accurate.
“Whatever the improvement district agrees to do, it has to be the same standard (as previous tests) and be repeatable if they are to be of any use to us,” Carruthers said.
“If we can agree on the parameters of the testing, then there might be an opportunity to work together with the improvement district.”
Wilson had hoped his motion to have the improvement district conduct the tests would pass.
“This process has been in the public domain for far too long and is still dragging out in terms of efforts to review certain aspects of the process,” he said.
“We must remain vigilant in our oversight of these issues and I intend to ensure that the processes are not manipulated by the interests of any department, company or individual. If it is necessary to hold feet to the fire, then I am quite prepared to do that.”