Shawnigan Lake residents spent the day Monday tracking the movements of a half-loaded barge carrying contaminated soil headed for the Stebbings Road South Island Aggregates landfill site operated by Cobble Hill Holdings.
Shawnigan Lake area director Sonia Furstenau said Tuesday, Nov. 24, “I think one day this could make a good movie for the new millennium. Instead of a car chase we have a slow motion barge chase.”
As of Tuesday, the barge was back in Nanaimo but “it left Nanaimo yesterday morning and it came down towards Bamberton and it was refused at Bamberton,” according to Furstenau.
Asked why the barge was in that area, she said, “I think the company was hoping they could dock at Bamberton and unload the material there and truck it to SIA.
“This is the contaminated soil from Pacific Coast Terminals in Port Moody. My information is that the Malahat Nation said ‘no’ to a barge stopping there. Then it stayed out there for a while and last night made its way back to Nanaimo,” she said.
The Malahat First Nation could not be reached for comment.
Furstenau was in CVRD meetings “but I was being kept appraised of the boat’s location throughout the entire day,” she said.
One of her eyes on the ground was activist Shelagh Bell-Irving.
“I heard that they wouldn’t be hauling Monday so I went home. Then I heard that the barge was headed to Bamberton and I got in my car and drove there,” Bell-Irving said.
However, it turned out the barge got a cool reception while Bell-Irving and other protesters kept an eye out.
“It turned around and then sat there looking homeless for a while and then left. We followed it for an hour and then started tracking it online,” she said.
The barge is about half-full, but lost its mooring at Duke Point because of protests at Stebbings Road which slowed the progress of the trucks and led to some arrests of protesters last week, according to Bell-Irving.
Pacific Coast Terminals (PCT), the origin of the soil, issued a statement as well, saying the soil is non-toxic and “the company consistently adheres to the highest levels of safety and environmental standards across all our business operations.”
With necessary permits in hand, PCT said, the movement of “the non-toxic soil from PCT to the SIA site is closely monitored by provincial and federal authorities. While the soil leaving PCT has slightly elevated levels of sulphur, zinc and salt, the soil is tested by two independent environmental consultants and is non-toxic.
“While we understand and appreciate the concerns of Shawnigan Lake residents, we want to assure them that PCT follows all established protocols to ensure the safe and responsible transfer,” the announcement said.
Meanwhile, there has also been some action from the provincial Environment Ministry.
Jennifer McGuire, executive director of the Environment Ministry’s regional operations branch, said in a widely circulated email Nov. 18 that because of recent concerns about the Stebbings Road site, “I am making a decision pursuant to Section 2.12 of the Permit to reduce or suspend the operations authorized under the permit.”
She called for “a thorough independent assessment of water management works, and activities” and wanted to see that “all remedies are made” to ensure compliance with the permit.
There had been concern that heavy rainfall could be pushing contaminated water into Shawnigan Lake instead of keeping it at Stebbings Road and an Island Health warning about using water from the south end of the lake only served to whip up residents’ worries even more. That warning has since been rescinded.
McGuire told Cobble Hill Holdings’ Marty Block and Mike Kelly that she wanted action.
“These investigations and remedial steps would ensure that all surface water (contact and non-contact water) is contained on the property and treated in accordance with the permit, and that the authorized works have been restored or corrected to prevent unauthorized discharges,” she said.
McGuire also asked for information that demonstrates Cobble Hill Holdings’ “immediate action and short term plans to ensure compliance with the permit specifically regarding water management and use of authorized works on the property.”
She also noted that “a follow-up inspection will be conducted within the next 10 business days by a ministry official to ensure compliance.”
Furstenau is waiting to hear back on the progress of these requests. “We appreciate that the ministry is starting to take the issue seriously, which I think is well-deserved. Of course, in Shawnigan, what we are hoping for is to see that permit rescinded, ideally, but at this point we’d be happy to see it suspended,” she said.
The CVRD has also been pursuing SIA in court, using its bylaws as the basis for its action.
“The case is proceeding in the BC Supreme Court this week. I think we’ll be hearing dates soon about the Shawnigan Residents Association’s case, too.”
Furstenau said she wanted to see greater acknowledgment from the Environment Ministry of the people’s concerns.
“It would be a sign of respect for the community if the ministry would suspend the permit until these cases have been heard. That would be a reasonable thing to do: answer to the questions being addressed in these BC Supreme Court cases,” she said.
The community is hoping that justice can be seen to be done, according to Furstenau.
“Perception is very important.”