The soil site was the subject of numerous rallies and protests in the community. (Citizen file)

Soil companies to close Shawnigan contaminated soil quarry permanently

Owners say they are out $20 million after government pulls permit and will sue for compensation

The owners of the contaminated soil landfill above Shawnigan Lake say the project will be permanently closed.

But Mike Kelly and Marty Block, owners of Cobble Hill Holdings, said the company is out approximately $20 million after Environment Minister Mary Polak pulled its operating permit last month, and they intend to sue to recover some or all of their financial investment into the project.

“There’s no doubt that it’s election time and we’ve gotten tired with all the politics that have been tied to this project,” Kelly said.

“We’re working with ministry staff on safety measures as we close the quarry and we’ll have to close it at our own expense. The ministry has caused us lots of damage since we opened, and we’re looking to have those damages compensated.”

Polak pulled the operating permit at the controversial landfill last month.

That permit had allowed the site to receive and store up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year.

In a letter at the time from the ministry to Cobble Hill Holdings and South Island Aggregates, the other partner in the project, the companies were given 15 business days to provide three required documents, but submitted only two prior to the deadline given.

Specifically, the ministry claimed 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 ministry’s letter said.

But Kelly said the site has only been in full operation for a total of eight months since the operating permit was first issued in 2013 due to legal challenges, and the financial security bond required by the government had risen by hundreds of thousands of dollars, and virtually no time was given to come up with the extra costs.

“We’re currently seeking legal advice on what our next steps should be,” he said. “It’s too bad that a small group of people did such a good job of spreading fear and unfounded allegations about this project.”

Block said the closure of the operation will mean the end of 36 well-paying jobs in the Cobble Hill area.

“I don’t understand how this helps the community at all,” he said. “The soil being brought in was benign and under strict guidelines. This was a good business for the whole community.”

In a further statement on March 24, the Environment Ministry stated it gave the companies sufficient notice to update their financial-security amount.

“The permit was cancelled by the minister on Feb. 23 because the permittee did not provide updated financial security as required,” the statement said.

The ministry added that Polak’s decision was based on assessments by staff who are “technical experts in their field” and was not taken lightly.

“To be clear, the permit was not cancelled due to pollution occurring, nor was it directly related to anything before the courts,” the statement said.

“This decision was based on the principle of escalating enforcement and repeated failure by the company to meet deadlines and comply with permit requirements.”

Sonia Furstenau, the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s director for Shawnigan Lake and longtime foe of the soil facility, said that with more than $2 million paid in legal fees to help fight against the landfill site over the years, the local community also feels the government holds some responsibility.

“The current state of this issue speaks to the failure of the licensing process in which everyone lost,” she said.

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