shawnigan lake

B.C. Cancels Controversial Hazardous Waste Disposal Permit in Shawnigan Lake Watershed

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak announced today she is revoking a permit granted to Cobble Hill Holdings for the disposal of 5 million tonnes of contaminated waste in a local quarry in the Shawnigan Lake watershed, roughly 40 kilometres north of Victoria on Vancouver Island.

“Effective immediately, I am cancelling the waste discharge permit for Cobble Hill Holdings because the company has failed to meet the requirements outlined in my Jan. 27 letter,” the minister stated in a press release.

Polak said the company did not provide B.C. with proof of financial security in the form of a letter of credit by a determined deadline.

“Cobble Hill Holdings has been given multiple opportunities to respond to outstanding non-compliance and has repeatedly missed deadlines with respect to its permit requirements,” the minister stated.

The company was cited for non-compliance both this fall and last for failing to control water runoff from the waste site, a fact that heightened concerns of Shawnigan Lake residents who felt that the project would contaminate their drinking water.

Project Pushed Ahead Without Community Support

“We’re ecstatic about the permit being cancelled,” Shawnigan Lake resident and municipal official with the Cowichan Valley Regional District, Sonia Furstenau, told DeSmog Canada.

“I’ve never doubted for a second that we would win because this project was so outrageous.”

Fursteanu, who is now running for the region’s provincial Green Party seat in the upcoming election, says the fact that such an ill-fitting project could be forced on a community is what pushed her into politics.

“I’ve learned over the last two years how broken things really are at the provincial level.”

Furstenau said she can still remember an early public consultation meeting about the project where 299 out of 300 residents in attendance said they did not want hazardous waste in their community.

The permit granted the company the permission to dispose of industrial waste contaminated with furans, dioxins, chlorinated hydrocarbons, glycols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, xylene and other materials know to cause cancer, brain damage, and birth defects in humans.

“At that point the government should have said, ‘okay, this is not what the community wants.’”

Furstenau said the waste disposal project is emblematic of other major projects in B.C. where local community voices are left out of the decision-making process.

“We’re the canary in the coalmine. We’re what’s happening everywhere,” she said.

“It’s the story of the government that chose a business over the community, despite — and this is the part that drives me crazy — despite the overwhelming evidence that showed we were right.”

A report by independent experts found local drinking water aquifers had not been adequately mapped by the B.C. Ministry of Environment and that the movement of groundwater within rock formations surrounding the quarry was underestimated.

Torrance Coste, campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, said at both the provincial and federal level, environmental reviews of projects push community concerns aside.

“There is a purposeful exclusion of communities in environmental assessments and project assessments,” Coste told DeSmog Canada.

“The B.C. Environmental Assessment Office is a big culprit for this. The reviews really prioritize the needs of the proponents, of the company, over the needs of the community.”

Coste said there are obvious parallels with the Raven coal mine proposed for a small community on Vancouver Island.

“It was a no-brainer, stupid project with no community support but lots of support from the government. The company throughout that process was always given the benefit of the doubt.”

He said with the coal mine, as with the waste disposal site in Shawnigan Lake, community organizing and opposition eventually won out, but despite seemingly blind government support.

“You have two companies that are glaring incompetent, not following the rules, winning zero trust, zero social licence from the community and the government is sticking by them until the eleventh hour.”

“That’s not how government should operate.”

Pulled Permit Could Be Used for Political Benefit

Coste said it’s also worth noting the B.C. government’s decision comes close to the provincial election.

“This is something the community has been working around the clock on since 2012 and now a couple of months before an election we see a move that ‘s going to be popular in the community.”

“That should be noted.”

Shawnigan Lake resident Georgia Collins also said the timing of the decision is notable given the importance of the Shawnigan Lake riding in the next provincial election.

“The B.C. government is clearly acting in their best interest. It’s just common sense not to have contaminated soil above a source of drinking water.”

“It’s hard to swallow because all along minister Polak said she absolutely could not interfere politically. It’s hard to swallow but of course we’ll take the win,” Collins said.

She added, “I really hope in all of this that people are able to see that it is the product of a community effort. I do fear that it’s one of those things you could take and spin for your own political benefit.”

Coste said it’s ultimately the government that holds the keys to major projects, meaning they always have the capacity to pull permits.

“That goes for Site C, for Kinder Morgan, old-growth logging and all sorts of activities that are occurring without social licence.”

The government has been preoccupied with delivering on it’s “getting to yes” tagline, but “it should be about doing what’s right for communities,” he said.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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