Second opinion on Shawnigan: good medicine against contaminated soil

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A second opinion is always advised, whether you are repainting a room or undergoing cancer therapy. Or having contaminated soil dumped in your community.

Fortunately, in this country we have a judiciary that offers a second opinion, speaking some hard truths that politicians are reluctant to admit. It was no coincidence that on Friday, BC Environment Minister Mary Polak suspended the permit for Cobble Hill Holdings’ Stebbings Road operation at Shawnigan Lake, only days after BC Supreme Court Justice Robert Sewell issued his judgment along with a harsh condemnation of “misleading” testimony from the company. (Read the ruling)

The Clark regime no doubt told itself during the last few months that even though there were compliance issues, the contaminated soil landfill was a legally-permitted business. And I’m guessing they didn’t want to be swayed too easily by tenacious protesters (I suspect a good chunk of Polak’s daily Twitter traffic comes from angry Shawnigan residents).

A business that complies with existing regulations should be free to operate, I said in an editorial – Soiled in Shawnigan – posted over a year ago in Local News Eye. After all, that rule of law attracts investors who know that the government won’t move in and take over the assets, unlike in some developing countries. And BC’s business-friendly government was obviously loath to shut it down. Until now. Now they can tell themselves they have a legitimate excuse, supported by the court ruling.

This situation raises two issues that need some attention: the flawed regulatory system that relies on qualified professional opinions, and the lack of consideration for the regional district’s authority. Regarding the second point, the CVRD should still pursue the Supreme Court of Canada request even if CHH’s permit is pulled permanently. That’s because many communities throughout BC will want to clarify just how much power they have to shape their own domains without being overruled by the province.

Shawnigan Lake’s contaminated soil site makes a sham of public consultation. Certainly, as developers clean up brownfield sites contaminated by industry, the soil has to go somewhere. There are other high-quality options right on the Island. Why send it to a landfill site that is clearly unsuitable? After all, we send our garbage to a U.S. landfill site that is exceptionally monitored and run by a company that was welcomed to the community.

There is always a gaggle of nay-sayers and NIMBYs who oppose change – good or bad – in every group. Yet when the community at large stands against something – and proactively does the research to support its stance – where is the benefit in provincial regulators pushing ahead on such a move? Shawnigan Residents Association President Calvin Cook said Friday’s suspension was a start toward the right path and the group felt vindicated.

It is fortunate that communities can ask for a second – and third – opinion from outside the political realm on controversial issues. Getting the prescription can be very slow. Yet when the regulatory system is sick, we need a judicial diagnosis delivered with the plain-spoken truth of a country doctor. The province can then act accordingly to deliver the right medicine, all for the health of our democracy as well as the environment.

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