Contaminated soil permit pulled but questions remain

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The general mood was as bubbly as the champagne as Shawnigan Lake citizens celebrated the news Feb. 23 that there would be no more contaminated soil trucked into their community. BC Minister of Environment Mary Polak cancelled the waste discharge permit for the dump after years of controversy.

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Shawnigan Residents Association President Calvin Cook signs the protest banner as group members celebrate

CVRD area director Sonia Furstenau (and Green Party candidate) applauded the community effort that was “steadfast and relentless,” during the years of opposition to the project. Local residents have railed against the Stebbings Road site since before the permit was granted to quarry owner Cobble Hill Holdings in 2013.

“While I’m thrilled that the minister has done the right thing and cancelled the permit, I remain committed to holding the government to account to ensure the contaminated soil is cleaned up safely,” said Furstenau. “The residents of Shawnigan should be proud of what we accomplished today, but they deserved to see action from their government much sooner.”

Soon after a damning court judgment in January, the ministry seemed to be spurred to ask the company for more documents, including adjusted financial security in the form of an irrevocable letter of credit.

“Cobble Hill Holdings has been provided multiple opportunities to respond to outstanding non-compliances and has repeatedly missed deadlines with respect to its permit requirements,” said Polak in a statement. “My decision to cancel the waste discharge permit is based on information and advice from staff who are technical experts in their field.” The minister’s letter of cancellation and reasons for decision can be found here.

Just before Polak announced the cancellation, Cowichan MLA Bill Routley was on his feet in the legislature for the umpteenth time demanding the permit be rescinded. Here is their video exchange.

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Sonia Furstenau

Other politicians weighed in as well. MP Alistair MacGregor called the process “flawed from the onset” and said he was elated the permit was revoked. B.C. Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said “It is completely unacceptable that it took this long. It is egregious that the people of Shawnigan had to take their government to court simply to receive representation.”

The cancellation is certainly not the end of the story. The CVRD is waiting for the Supreme Court of Canada to decide whether to hear its argument that provincial mining laws should not take precedence over the regional land-use regulations (see previous story).

Then there is the question of who will pay for the removal of the tonnes of contaminated soil, especially if the owner does not have the resources.

Finally, concerns remain about how an anonymous whistleblower and a group of local vigilant residents can be the leaders in helping the government right what was a process gone wrong. The practice of professional reliance (using independent consultants instead of government inspectors) needs a serious reevaluation as well. Other beleaguered communities will be watching with interest.

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