The steady stream of trucks filled with contaminated waste that have been making their way to the small community of Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island for the last 10 months will come to a stop today after the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the province erred in granting a waste disposal permit for 460 Stebbings Road.
The B.C. Supreme Court ruled “a contaminated soil treatment facility is not a permitted use on the property” after finding the provincial Ministry of Environment granted a waste discharge permit to South Island Aggregates in August 2013 that violated local bylaws.
The court ordered an immediate injunction preventing South Island Aggregates from dumping more contaminated material.
“I’m just ecstatic,” Sonia Furstenau, elected representative of Shawnigan Lake with the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD), told DeSmog Canada about the ruling.
In 2015 the CVRD filed a lawsuit against the permit, which granted the company permission to dump 5 million tonnes of contaminated soil in a local gravel quarry.
According to the permit, the waste could contain furans, dioxins, chlorinated hydrocarbons, glycols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, xylene and other materials known to cause cancer, brain damage and birth defects in humans.
The quarry is located approximately five kilometres uphill from Shawnigan Lake, a source of drinking water for 7,500 year-round residents. The population swells to 12,000 in the summer months.
Residents of Shawnigan Lake aggressively opposed the project since it was first proposed in 2012, citing concerns over the potential contamination of drinking water.
“From the very beginning nobody thought the provincial government would approve this. It just seemed too crazy,” Fursteanau, a resident of Shawnigan Lake and organizer with the Save Shawnigan Water campaign, said.
She added today’s decision comes just over one year after the community lost its case with the B.C. Environmental Appeal Board (EAB).
“It’s ironic,” Furstenau mused, “I studied medieval history and it’s a year and a day today since the EAB decision and that was the period of punishment in the middle ages — you’d be exiled for a year and a day.”
“So our exile in Shawnigan is over.”
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The community of Shawnigan Lake is awaiting an additional decision from the B.C. Court of Appeal that seeks to overturn the Environmental Appeal Board ruling. In that case the CVRD and the Shawnigan Residents Association are arguing the permit approval process was corrupted due to a leaked profit sharing agreement between the company and the engineering firm hired to provide geotechnical analysis of the project.
“I’m hoping for another successful outcome,” Furstenau said.
“We are on the side of light and justice, on the side of truth and on the side of protecting drinking water, which all governments should protect.”
In an e-mailed statement the B.C. Ministry of Environment said "staff will need to review the decision to fully understand its impacts before we can provide further comment."*
Shawnigan Lake resident Georgia Collins said the Supreme Court’s decision has her “over the moon.”
“It’s literally the best day of my life,” she said over the phone. “I don’t know what to do with my self. I just went outside and screamed in the happiest way possible.”
Collins said the ruling is important because it upholds local bylaws and zoning restrictions over and above permits granted by provincial ministries.
“I have very little faith in the provincial government now,” Collins said. “There was such a failure of process”
Collins added she would still like to see the Ministry of Environment’s permit overturned by the B.C Court of Appeal.
“I think it needs to be shown that the process was faulty, that there was fraud and that the community was right in what it was fighting for.”
She added: “I know all kinds of appeals can be made, but right now I’m going to celebrate this.”
Andrew Weaver, leader of the B.C. Green Party and MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head, congratulated the community, saying the court decision “is a vindication of their concerns.”
"I want to recognize the hard work of Shawnigan Lake residents in coming together as a community and standing up for their rights in the face of government inaction.”
"I look forward to reviewing the ruling and working with local politicians and residents to ensure that we continue to move this issue forward in a way that protects the rights of the Shawnigan Lake community," Weaver said in a statement.
The B.C. Supreme Court did not order the company to remove contaminated soil already deposited at the site but indicated such matters will be handled by the Ministry of Environment and the Environmental Appeal Board.
*Updated to include comment from the Ministry of Environment.
Image: Protesters block trucks loaded with contaminated soil. Photo by Laura Colpitts.
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