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Water Below Shawnigan Lake Landfill Exceeded Heavy Metal Guidelines

‘Why is this company being allowed to operate outside its permitting conditions?’ asks regional director.

Andrew Nikiforuk 26 Jan

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Water from a controversial landfill above Vancouver Island’s Shawnigan Lake exceeded B.C. guidelines for heavy metals in October and November, contrary to the project’s environmental permit, says a Cowichan Valley regional director leading the fight against the project.

Sonia Furstenau said reports recently posted on the environment ministry website show that levels of aluminum, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, lead, manganese, vanadium and zinc exceeded either B.C. drinking water regulations or guidelines to safeguard aquatic life during some testing periods in October and November.

“Why is this company being allowed to operate outside its permitting conditions?” asked Furstenau, who reviewed the raw data posted by the ministry and compared it to the guidelines. “Is it not a problem that there are elevated levels of metals entering into a creek that feeds our community drinking water?”

The landfill’s 50-year permit requires all water from its settling pond and treatment facilities to meet provincial water quality guidelines.

The company and its lawyer did not respond to queries by deadline.

In 2013, the provincial government granted South Island Aggregates and Cobble Hill Holdings the right to fill part of a quarry with up to 100,000 tonnes a year of contaminated soil against the wishes of local government and thousands of citizens dependent on drinking water from Shawnigan Lake. It was the first time the province allowed an active quarry to be used as a landfill.

This week B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Sewell ordered the Environmental Appeal Board to revisit its approval of the contaminated waste dump. Sewell found the board failed to act fairly in reaching its decision and the company had withheld relevant information and misled the board.

The province stipulated in the permit that all discharged treated effluent from the landfill must be equivalent or better than the most stringent of the B.C. Approved Water Quality Guidelines.

“Contravention of any of these conditions is a violation of the Environmental Management Act and may lead to prosecution,” the permit says.

Untreated effluent has been released twice from the site, with a spill in November 2015 and another last year.

Last October, after the mine site released 14,000 to 28,000 litres of untreated wastewater during a rainstorm, the province ordered the company to cover and properly collect runoff from contaminated soils.

It also ordered the company to test water samples discharged from the northwest corner of the site.

But since then, samples of runoff from the site this fall still showed high levels of heavy metals.

That’s a clear failure of the site’s operating conditions, Furstenau said.

Furstenau said a hydrogeologist had warned the government that “it would be hard to imagine a worse place to locate a contaminated fill site.” Another hydrogeologist raised concerns about vulnerable aquifers, she said.

An Oct. 13 letter from Cobble Hill Holdings to the environment ministry said that its permit “appropriately and sufficiently protects the environment” and helped to prevent the illegal dumping of contaminated soils on the Island.

The letter added that “In the words of your own staff, this is the best run facility on the island (if not the whole province).”

But a Nov. 4 reply from Environment Minister Mary Polak threatened the company with suspension or cancellation of its permit if it didn’t comply with a year-old order to conduct studies on water management at the site and deal with other instances of failing to comply with the permit requirements.

“Your letter is not directly responsive to the specific instances of non-compliance with the permit requirements that were identified in my letter of October 11, 2016,” wrote Polak. “Your response also did not clarify your specific intentions to rectify the non-compliances.”

Polak gave the company until Dec. 20 to respond.

When asked why the province hadn’t enforced the permit conditions, the ministry sent an email quoting from its website: “The permittee continues to sample in accordance with the Pollution Prevention Order which remains in effect. Under the Order, a sample must be collected each day there is a discharge. The ministry has posted raw sampling data and is currently completing its review of these sample results. Copies of all data have been shared with Island Health.”

Furstenau called the response pathetic. “This isn’t just an issue about the environment, but about justice and government accountability,” she said.  [Tyee]

Read more: Environment

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