Under intense legal and citizen pressure, Environment Minister Mary Polak has suspended the permit for a controversial Shawnigan Lake contaminated soil landfill site.
The suspension takes effect immediately and continues until Cobble Hill Ltd., the owner of the facility, and South Island Resource Management Ltd., the operator of the facility, meet a variety of conditions.
“This is a huge step,” declared Sonia Furstenau, an elected director of the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD). “Minister Polak has given the company an impossible task.”
The suspension order reverses the minister’s previous reluctance to take much action on the three-year long controversy.
Last October, Polak dismissed concern about water contamination from the site as matter of optics.
“I can’t pull the permit simply because the issue is giving me a political problem,” Polak told the CBC.
The suspension directly follows a dramatic court ruling on Jan. 23 that ordered all shipments of toxic soil to stop because “false and misleading” information had been presented to the Environmental Appeal Board to support the permit.
In 2013 the board relied on a technical report on the facility’s safety that “was prepared by engineers who were not independent and who stood to profit from the continued operation of the facility,” reported Justice Robert Sewell.
“That is a circumstance that goes to the heart of the integrity of the approval process under the Environmental Management Act,” added Sewell.
Given that a blatant conflict of interest had tainted the permitting process, the judge ordered the board to review the permit.
Four days later, Polak suspended the permit for the facility “due to their failure to address both outstanding as well as past non-compliances.”
In particular, the minister found that the company had failed to produce a proper closure plan; failed to estimate the cost of the closure; failed to produce a security deposit for liabilities; and persistently exceeded water quality permits as documented by The Tyee.
The minister has now given the company 15 business days to correct these deficiencies.
The contaminated landfill site is located in an active quarry four kilometres uphill from the lake, in a provincially designated “Community Watershed.” A creek and aquifers that drain into the lake flow directly through or underneath the property.
In the words of one hydrogeologist, “It would be hard to imagine a worse place to locate a contaminated fill site.”
The province also imposed a “Spill Prevention Order” on the company.
The order requires the company to collect and temporarily store all leachate or polluting waste water from the facility so as “to prevent an escape or spill of leachate into the environment.”
Opponents of the facility “are feeling elated,” Furstenau said. “But when we stop to think about it, the government has deeply betrayed this community.”
“This sort of a facility should never have been approved in a the community’s watershed in the first place,” said the CRVD director. “What happened here was outrageous and so wrong.”
To date, both the Cowichan Valley Regional District and Shawnigan Residents Association have spent more than $2 million to effectively force the province to uphold its own laws.
The battle to protect the watershed included street protests that drew hundreds of people and legal challenges in the courts.
In a statement to the media earlier in the week, the company explained that it had given the ministry a new engineering study on water management.
“Neither the ministry oversight over the last two years nor the new engineering raise any current concern about environmental impact or risk. This means the permit is working.”
But that’s not what the Ministry of Environment found in its suspension order.
In documents supporting the order, the ministry explained that “Failure to maintain compliance has resulted in significant public concern, public health concerns, and potential environmental impacts.”
“Furthermore, incidents [spills of untreated water] in the fall of both 2015 and 2016 have raised questions about the ability of the site to operate in a manner that is protective of the environment and human health.”
The ministry also noted that the facility had “not been adequately responsive (either by timely or complete responses) to the ministry, despite significant efforts on behalf of ministry staff to ensure environmental protection measures are in place and compliance is achieved.”
Between April 2015 and December 2016, the ministry conducted 14 inspections and found the company in a state of “non-compliance” on eight separate issues.
“The number and variety of enforcement actions demonstrates a history and pattern of non-compliance at the site,” added the ministerial documents ordering the suspension.
In 2013, the province approved the permit that allowed South Island Aggregates, an active quarry, to store up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil over a 50-year period.
Storing and treating contaminated soil can be a big business on the Island. A facility that stores and treats 100,000 tonnes a year can generate revenue as much as $10 million.
But from the beginning, hydrogeologists, local government and citizens raised pointed concerns about dumping toxic waste in a quarry made of fractured limestone in the headwaters of Shawnigan Lake.
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