Soil opponents still skeptical after provincial testing results

A community open house has yielded more questions than answers about the safety of the drinking water supply in Shawnigan Lake.

A community open house has yielded more questions than answers for residents about the safety of the drinking water supply in Shawnigan Lake and the activities of the area’s industrial neighbours.

Thursday night’s meeting featured representatives from the Ministries of Environment and Energy and Mines who presented the results of provincial sampling related to the South Island Aggregates (otherwise known as Cobble Hill Holdings) site on Stebbings Road.

The official word was the testing, conducted on May 13, “found no exceedances of concern for provincial drinking water guidelines and aquatic life guidelines.”

“Some of the groundwater results showed elevated levels of some parameters which are known to be naturally elevated on Vancouver Island, such as arsenic. Some soil sampling results showed isolated and infrequent locations marginally exceeding provincial contaminated sites regulations for lead and zinc,” said the MOE’s information bulletin. “All surface water results met B.C. water quality guidelines.”

The province’s test results differ from those of Dr. Andrew Weaver, climate scientist and Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA.

The Green Party member took his own samples in the area and concluded that while he agrees with the ministry that there is no public health risk as of yet, too many questions remain to drop the issue.

Weaver believes his below-the-surface tests have more telling results than the province’s top layer testing.

“If you want to know whether compliance has occurred, you want to know what’s below the surface, not what’s at the surface,” he explained.

Weaver took his samples on the covenant between the property line and Shawnigan Creek from a pool of water that’s part of a little run-off stream that goes from the site to the creek.

The renowned scientist said high levels of chemicals like thorium jumped out at him as being unusual.

“Thorium is not something that’s just in the background at this location so it begs the question, what is actually below the surface? Frankly, that’s what’s concerning the people of Shawnigan Lake,” Weaver said. “I think the ministry has not done due diligence on this and I’m really quite shocked that they would try to imply that nothing’s wrong with what’s buried there when they did not test below the surface.”

He found 16 other chemicals at varying levels above what’s normal.

“There are enough questions from these results that I did to imply that more research needs to be done on the site,” Weaver said, though he couldn’t say what, if anything, is under there.

“I have hunches of course. My hypothesis is that there’s some kind of industrial parts buried under there that I would test for. I would love more than anything else for my hypothesis to be false, but I would test it.”

It all comes down to trust, Weaver said.

“The question is not are people at risk today? That’s not an issue. I would agree with the ministry because nobody’s health is at risk today,” he said, adding that nobody would ever be drinking out of the water he took his samples from.

The question is can people trust that what’s being deposited on that site is not only permitted material, but that it’s staying within its authorized boundaries?

“If there are outstanding questions on prior activities, it is very difficult to earn trust on future activities.”

That’s why some 350 people attended Thursday night’s open house, said Shawnigan Lake Area Director Sonia Furstenau. She said her community has no trust in the Ministry of Environment, and even less after the meeting.

“If the province is so confident about the results and the decisions they are making around the site, then why did they feel the need to limit public questions? Why wouldn’t they answer the questions that were asked publicly last night?” she wondered. “Why didn’t they send somebody that had the capacity to answer those questions? This government is saying one thing and behaving in a very different way.”

She maintains the community will never give up on its future and on the safety of its drinking water.

“What’s astonishing to me is that no matter how much information comes to light about the past behaviour of this company, the secret deals, the concealed information, the ministry seems determined to act in the interest of the private company and not in the interest of the community,” she said. “We won’t ever give up.”

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