Shawnigan residents break out bubbly after province rescinds contaminated soil permit

Residents were celebrating with champagne in downtown Shawnigan Lake Thursday, Feb. 24

Residents were celebrating with champagne in downtown Shawnigan Lake Thursday, Feb. 24 after hearing that Environment Minister Mary Polak had finally pulled the waste discharge permit for the controversial contaminated soil dump site near the community.

The location, near Stebbings Road, owned by Cobble Hill Holdings Ltd. and South Island Aggregates Ltd. has seen the “dirty dirt” hauled in from outside the Cowichan Valley and dumped in a plastic lined hole, causing nearby residents concern about how run-off could affect drinking water sources as well as the lake itself.

“We’re elated,” said Shawnigan Lake area director Sonia Furstenau. “We’re ecstatic. This is a huge day for this community. We’ve worked together as a united community for years on end now. And we really deserve this outcome. We’re overjoyed.”

There was a community meeting on the subject Monday night she said, with about 80 people. She was feeling optimistic then, as she said there’s been a shift in the Ministry of Environment’s treatment of the file since October. Furstenau felt the ministry was starting to take concerns more seriously.

“As soon as I saw that start to happen, I began to feel very optimistic about this. I want to say thank you to the minister for making the right decision, but the credit for this goes to the community for working so hard and so long on this. This is a good day. I’m applauding her.”

But in spite of the celebration, Furstenau still sees work to be done.

“The one caveat, the next step is that the soil will have to be removed. We said that from the start and we’re sticking to it. The soil has to go. It can’t stay. We’ll celebrate today’s victory and the next thing this community will be seeking from higher levels of government is that the soil is removed.”

Cobble Hill Holdings Ltd. and South Island Aggregates Ltd. issued a statement through their lawyer, Aurora Faulkner-Killam of the Victoria firm, Cox Taylor just before 3 p.m. Thursday.

“The minister’s letter comes as a shock to the company, after it worked hard to answer the ministry’s concerns within the time provided. The company will need to review the letter, and take advice before making any further comments.”

Shortly before the minister’s announcement, Cowichan Valley MLA Bill Routley stood up in the Legislature Thursday and asked, “when the people of Shawnigan Lake were concerned about protecting their drinking water from a contaminated soil dump, this minister of environment said they had no reason to fear because of the system, the one created by this Liberal government would protect them. But according to a BC Supreme Court judge, the Ministry of Environment and the people of the community of Shawnigan Lake that I represent were lied to…Honourable Speaker, now we have a bizarre situation where the minister is saying that the system has let everyone down…How much longer does this minister plan to put my constituents through the spin cycle?”

Polak’s statement was issued not long after.

“Effective immediately, I am cancelling the waste discharge permit for Cobble Hill Holdings because the company has failed to meet the requirements outlined in my Jan. 27 letter.

“The company was given 15 business days to provide three required documents and submitted only two prior to the deadline given. Specifically, the company failed to provide the province with adjusted financial security in the form of an irrevocable letter of credit.

“Cobble Hill Holdings has been provided multiple opportunities to respond to outstanding non-compliances and has repeatedly missed deadlines with respect to its permit requirements,” the statement continued.

“Ministry staff are taking actions to ensure material on the property is managed in a way that does not present a risk to human health or the environment. My decision to cancel the waste discharge permit is based on information and advice from staff who are technical experts in their field,” Polack concluded.

MP Alistair MacGregor (Cowichan-Malahat-Langford) said he was was elated at the news.

“Not only was the entire process that allowed the toxic soil dump permit flawed from the onset, but during the first serious rain event of its existence the project failed and discharged contaminated soil directly into the watershed. It shouldn’t have taken this long for the BC government to put an end to this irresponsible and dangerous soil dump that risked inflicting irreparable damage to the Shawnigan watershed and its aquatic life,” he said.

In a scrum held in the Legislature, Polak faced reporters, including Black Press’s Tom Fletcher.

Asked what was going to happen to the material on the site, she said, “That is part of the amendment to the spills prevention order, and also requirements in terms of their closure planning, so our staff will be following up with them to ensure that they fulfil all their obligations.

“Just because the permit is cancelled doesn’t mean the company no longer has obligations on the site. They still are the ones who are responsible for the site and for maintaining it properly and dealing with any remediation necessary.”

Asked if the company has added any extra funds to the $250,000 bond they had first posted, she said, “That is part of the information that was requested that they did not provide us adequately by the deadline, which was a proper recalculation of the amount that they would provide in a letter of credit. They did not do that, and so we will be pursuing all of those obligations that they have and making sure that they comply.”

Polak did not have definite answers about who had full responsibility for removal of the material from the site, or what recourse the ministry might have, or even if taxpayers might be on the hook for the cleanup.

“The government of B.C. is always responsible to take action where a proponent isn’t,” she said. “That is always the case, and is part of making sure that we keep everybody safe. Ultimately it is the legal obligation of the company, and if they fail to do so, then we would certainly pursue them in court. We’ve been successful there on many occasions.”