Let’s focus on creating resilient communities.

Shawnigan Creek, above the contaminated soil landfill. Photo by Laura Colpitts.

Hearing the news that the Minister of Environment planned to accept the closure plan for the contaminated landfill in Shawnigan’s watershed was like a physical blow.  “I think I have post-traumatic stress,” I said to my husband.  I expect many people in the community will feel the same way.

At the heart of that stress is the sense that we are in a system that doesn’t serve our community, but instead serves the interests of those who have put our community at risk.

From the very beginning – seven long years ago – it seemed that at every turn the system was designed not to protect our drinking water and our community, but to protect the proponents who wanted to put a contaminated landfill in our watershed.  Here is a link to a summary of that long, sordid tale:  We Stayed Strong, Shawnigan

We did everything.  We immediately voiced our opposition to the project, we presented evidence, we hired lawyers, we held community meetings, we tried every possible path we could to stop what was so obviously a terrible risk to our watershed.

None of it seemed to make the government change their position. Non-compliance with the permit? Didn’t matter. Non-payment of taxes? Didn’t matter. Misleading the Ministry of Environment and the Environmental Appeal Board by not disclosing a secret profit-sharing deal with the engineers? Didn’t matter.

Contaminated Landfill, 2016. Photo by Laura Colpitts.

Ultimately, the previous Minister of Environment did revoke the permit in February 2017, because the company didn’t produce an adequate security for their closure plan.  This was after the Ministry suspended the permit in January 2017 in response to an October 2016 even, when heavy rains led to untreated water leaching into the surrounding environment.

With the change in government, there was hope that the new Minister of Environment, George Heyman, would recognize the importance of not leaving the 100,000 tonnes of soil in our drinking watershed by compelling the company, Cobble Hill Holdings, Inc. to remove it as part of their site closure plan. Allowing the company to leave the soil in place would condone their actions.

The Shawnigan Research Group continued to bring forward information and expert opinions, and I continued to convey to the Minister the importance of making the protection of drinking water a priority – not only in Shawnigan, but in every community in BC.

Last week, Mr Heyman made his decision about the soil in Shawnigan’s watershed. He has approved Cobble Hill Holding’s closure plan, which includes bringing in 70,000 tonnes of non-contaminated soil to “cap” the landfill, and then have ongoing monitoring of the site, including tax-payer funded ministry oversight. The contaminated soil will not be removed, and the company has an opportunity to generate revenue from brining in the new “capping soil.”

The long history of these operators was apparently overlooked.  The ever-changing stories about the nature of this site are seemingly not relevant. The health of the groundwater beneath and surface water all around this site are not enough to convince Mr. Heyman that this has never been and never will be an appropriate location for contaminated soil.

The greatest irony? The government is not asking for a security deposit for this closure plan. If the owners don’t do what is laid out in the closure plan, it will inevitably fall to government to clean up the mess.

And so this today, reflecting on all that has happened, it seems to me that the system still protects the wrong people.

Yes, as a result of our agreement with the NDP, this government has brought in reforms to Professional Reliance and Environmental Assessment – but what they have not done is made the protection of drinking water a priority.

And priorities very much determine outcomes.

If protection of Shawnigan’s drinking water were a priority, this Minister would have ordered the soil removed.

If protection of drinking watersheds across BC were a priority, the people of Peachland would not have to be looking at paying $24 million for a water treatment plant because of impacts from logging in their watershed.  The people of Ymir would not have to be fighting so hard to prevent BC Timber Sales from moving forward with logging in their drinking watershed.  The citizens of Campbell River would not be having to worry about a contaminated landfill in their drinking watershed.

The Mt Polley disaster and its aftermath is another example of what happens when protecting water is not a priority  – five years after the tailings pond breached at Mt Polley effluent from the mine is still being pumped into what used to be a pristine boy of water.

The list goes on, in every part of BC, communities are experiencing negative impacts to their drinking water due to prioritizing mining, logging, and other industrial activities over safe drinking water.

With increasing droughts and other impacts from climate change, drinking water protection and water security must be a top priority of all governments

This Minister’s decision to accept this closure plan is deeply disappointing. I will continue to work with the Shawnigan Research Group and the community as we contemplate next steps.  This is neither an appropriate nor an acceptable decision.

And I will continue to work to make protection of drinking water in this province a priority.  Every community in BC should expect no less.

Shawnigan Watershed. Photo by Laura Colpitts.

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