Dispute heating up over soil disposal facility near B.C.’s Shawnigan Lake

Opponents of a contaminated soil disposal facility near Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island have turned up the volume on their campaign, co-ordinating helicopter flights for media and politicians and urging the province to pull the permit for the site.

The helicopter flights, designed to provide a bird’s-eye view of the terrain and waterways around the contentious project, are part of an ongoing battle by the Shawnigan Residents Association and other opponents – including the Cowichan Valley Regional District – to close what they contend is a poorly located, potentially dangerous facility.

The facility’s owners maintain there is “no quantifiable risk” to human health from the operation. The province has issued a permit to the facility, and the Environmental Appeal Board last year upheld that permit. A November drinking water advisory in the region, issued after water was seen flowing from the site, was lifted after tests showed no public-health concerns.

The heated controversy concerns a soil disposal facility run by South Island Resource Management (SIRM) on property about five kilometres south of, and uphill from, Shawnigan Lake – the main source of drinking water for about 12,000 people. Under a provincial permit issued in 2013, the facility is approved to receive up to 100,000 tonnes a year of contaminated soil – soil that may have come from, for example, construction or mining sites.

Soil received at the site is treated or disposed in a specially designed landfill that is supposed to prevent any contaminants from escaping. The site is not approved to handle hazardous waste, and levels of contaminants are set by provincial legislation.

After opponents raised concerns about the permit, it went before the Environmental Appeal Board, which upheld the permit in March, 2015. That cleared the way for trucks to begin delivering soil to the site. Opponents, however, kept lobbying against the project, alleging there were errors in technical evidence presented to the board.

Both the Shawnigan Residents Association and the Cowichan Valley Regional District have filed court actions in relation to the project. Those lawsuits are ongoing.

Concerns about the project mounted in November, when the Vancouver Island Health Authority issued a no-water-use advisory for part of Shawnigan Lake after water was spotted flowing from the soil disposal site. The advisory was issued on Nov. 13 and lifted on Nov. 17 after tests showed no risk to public health.

Worries, however, remain. The project is in an unsuitable location and the government should revoke the operator’s permit, NDP Leader John Horgan said on Wednesday.

“You don’t need a helicopter ride to see – you just have to stand at the corner of the lot where the soils are being deposited and look down,” said Mr. Horgan, who attended the Shawnigan Lake protest. “And what you’ll see is water leaving the site … and it’s heading straight down the hill, as you would expect it to.”

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak was not available for an interview. In response to a request for comment, staff said that the Ministry of Environment would continue to monitor the site closely and that, “to date, samples have shown no concerns for human health or environmental impacts.”

Nobody from SIRM was available to comment. In an e-mailed statement, the company said protesters at the site Wednesday were trespassing. The company also said it is “fully compliant” with its permits.

“There is no quantifiable risk from the site to human health in the Shawnigan Lake watershed and we continue to hope that reasonable debate will prevail,” the statement said.

The Ministry of Environment was not able to say exactly how many contaminated soil disposal sites are currently operating in the province, but said there would be dozens in various regions.

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