On August 21, 2013 the Ministry of Environment (MOE) granted South Island Aggregates Ltd. (SIA)/ Cobble Hill Holdings (CHH) a 50-year permit to receive up to 100,000 tons of contaminated soil annually (a total of five million tons). The proposed location of the site for the contaminated soils is the SIA quarry located at 640 Stebbings Road (Lot 23 owned by CHH). This is located off South Shawnigan Lake Road between Shawnigan Lake and Highway 1. SIA proposed to back fill their quarry with contaminated soils while they continued to blast for new aggregate material. The permit was granted subject to “requiring complete containment of the soils to be introduced into the quarry.”
1) The testing and assessment of the suitability of the site’s geology and hydrogeology was inadequate and incomplete.
2) The monitoring and water treatment plans were deficient.
3) The MOE failed to apply the appropriate test for the issuance of the Permit in that it failed to:
(a) ascertain the degree of scientific uncertainty about the hydrogeology, water monitoring and treatment technologies and plans;
(b) in view of the uncertainties, identify the degree of risk that the facility will not succeed in permanently containing the contaminants and toxins in the five million tons of contaminated soil to be deposited at the site.
Initially, I was reluctant to wade into this issue. But as time rolled on I started to receive a number of emails and letters from concerned constituents who had vacation properties on Shawnigan Lake.
The proposed location of the contaminated soil site (Figure 1) is at an elevation above both Shawnigan Lake, the water source for about 5,000 local residents who draw directly from the lake, as well as Sooke Lake, the reservoir for Greater Victoria’s water. An additional 7,000 or so residents get their potable water from within the Shawnigan Lake watershed. Surface water runs into Shawnigan Lake while the path taken by groundwater is plagued with great uncertainty.
In its application for a stay pending a decision from the Environmental Appeal Board, Shawnigan Residents Association noted expert testimony from hydrogeologist Dennis Lowen that argued: “The site is not suitable for a landfill”. They further submitted:
“The ground on which the landfill is to be located is fractured bedrock… The site itself is an active rock quarry… The quarry has only been 4% mined, so blasting and excavating is ongoing… backfilling will be accomplished using contaminated soil instead of clean fill …the site would not, for example, be acceptable for a secure landfill under Hazardous Waste Legislation.”
On September 13, 2013, the Cowichan Valley Regional District also filed an appeal to the Environmental Appeal Board. They too took a very strong position against the proposed contaminated soils site. Amongst a variety of other concerns, they argued that:
a. There is a divergence of professional opinion and significant uncertainty in the geology and hydrogeology of the area and the associated risks to drinking water resources.
b. The characterization of the geology and hydrogeology of the area is based on a limited amount of data and a limited number of wells and boreholes not evenly distributed around the property and surrounding area.
c. The design of the proposed contaminant soil treatment facility and landfill facility does not adequately ensure that contaminated soil and ash or the associated effluent will not adversely impact drinking water resources or the environment.
In 2001 after the BC Liberals were elected to their first term, they began a comprehensive core review to cut the size of government. Premier Campbell asked all government departments to prepare scenarios as to what it would look like with 20%, 35% and 50% cuts to spending. As a direct consequence of government downsizing, technical expertise within the civil service became a casualty. Instead of having technical expertise in house, the government moved towards wide scale use of Professional Reliance in the permitting process. Under the Professional Reliance approach, the Ministry relies on the judgment and expertise of qualified experts hired by a project proponent.
What is particularly important to note is that in March 2014, the Office of the British Columbia Ombudsperson released a scathing report criticizing the Professional Reliance model with respect to streamside protection and enhancement areas. The report, entitled The Challenges of Using a Professional Reliance in Environmental Protection – British Columbia’s Riparian Areas Regulation made 25 recommendations, 24 of which the government agreed to accept. But this acceptance came almost a year after the Ministry of Environment granted SIA their permit.
My own personal view is that the government’s approach to follow the Professional Reliance model is fraught with difficulties. The role of the government is to protect the public interest. When government is making decisions solely based on a project proponent’s expert opinion, it is very troubling. Imagine a judge in a court of law only listening to the expert opinion on one side of a case (plaintiff or defendant) and not allowing expert opinion to be submitted from the opposing side.
As such, the concerns of both the CVRD and the SRA seem particularly relevant in light of the fact that they themselves brought in expert testimony that contradicted the project proponent’s evidence.
The property located at 638 Stebbings Road (known as Lot 21) is owned by 0782484 B.C. Ltd. and has been in use for quite some time as a fill site. A photograph of the northern boundary wall of deposited soils is shown to the right. This photograph was taken from CVRD Parkland on the north side of Shawnigan Creek. Lot 21 is located immediately adjacent to Lot 23. In November 8, 2013 the Environmental Appeal Board granted a stay in proceeding to the SRA and CVRD until such time as their full appeal was heard. In their decision, the Environmental Appeal Board noted a number of serious concerns regarding Lot 21. For several years, soil has been dumped Lot 21 for later use to backfill the quarry in lot 23.
On the afternoon of Thursday April 2, 2015, I visited the region with Shawnigan Lake Area Director Sonia Furstenau. Together with a few other Shawnigan Lake residents, we hiked around Lots 21 and 23 on parkland owned by the CVRD. I took this opportunity to take a number of photographs. More importantly, I took the opportunity to collect water samples.
The quarry located on Lot 23 (shown in Figure 2 and pictured in the banner image above) is bordered to the west by CVRD parkland and to the north by Lot 21. Our journey took us from Stebbings Road along a parkland covenant on the south side of the quarry to the parkland immediately to the west. We hiked in parkland along the western edge of the quarry and made our first stop at the northwest corner of Lot23 where the photographs below were taken. At this location there exists a pond of water (top) that drains (bottom) eventually into Shawnigan Creek.
Figure 3: Photographs taken from the northwest corner of lot 23 where there exists a pond of water (top) that eventually drains (centre) into Shawnigan Creek.
From this point we continued north along the western edge of Lot 21. Here it was readily evident that fill containing building materials was prevalent on the Lot 21 property. In fact, a significant amount of fill had over run Lot 21 and was on the neighbouring parkland. As we passed through the area I took a number of picture illustrating the type of building material that was present. A few examples are shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4: Photographs taken on CVRD land showing presence of building materials.
As evident in Figure 4, we discovered rebar, piping, concrete, asphalt, tiles, and even a tire. There seemed to be a large amount of fill in the form of building material on Lot 21.
It is relatively straightforward to determine metal contents in runoff waters using an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICPMS). Given the visible presence of steel products on the surface of the neighbouring CVRD parkland, I decided to collect water samples from two locations.
The first location (Site 1 in Figure 2 and denoted Plat in the analysis tables) was a relatively flat area that had standing water present at the surface. The second location (Site 2 in Figure 2 and donate Outflow in the analysis tables) was collected at the location where Lot 21 runoff entered Shawnigan Creek.
Figure 5: Photographs showing me collecting the water samples: Site 1 (left) and Site 2 (right).
The water flowing into Shawnigan Creek is orange (Figure 6) indicating an abundance of iron in solution.
Figure 6: Photographs of the water that runs from the north end of Site 21 into Shawnigan creek.
I passed the sample to my University of Victoria colleague Dr. Jay Cullen who in turn asked the UVic ICMPS Lab Manager, Dr. Jody Spence, if he would be able to analyse the samples. To process the samples the bottles were vigourously shaken, and the contents divided into two. One of the samples was filtered; one was not. Then 1 mL of environmental grade Nitric Acid was added to the unfiltered portion and left to sit overnight before analysis (this oxidizes and solubilizes more labile components of the precipitate that had formed). For the filtered portion, Dr. Spence used some sample to pre-rinse a clean syringe (all plastic, no rubber), and then filtered about 25 mL of sample through a 0.45 micron disposable filter. To this he added 0.5 mL of Nitric acid and let it sit overnight as well.
The results of the analysis are available in pdf format. All units in this table are in μg/L (micro gram per litre).
Schedule 6 of the Contaminated Sites Regulation of the Environmental Management Act lays out water standards for aquatic life, irrigation, livestock and drinking water. I will only concentrate on the drinking water standard although others may wish to compare my water results for aquatic life standards. As noted in Schedule 6 “Drinking water standards are for unfiltered samples obtained at the point of consumption.”
What is readily apparent from the analysed data is that the iron (Fe) levels fail drinking water standards locally. Manganese (Mn) levels are also high. These levels are almost certainly associated with the presence of buried steel (rebar, building materials etc.) on Lot 21. Nevertheless, by the time the water gets into Shawnigan Lake it will be so diluted that it would no longer fail these standards.
What is also important to note is that I have yet to analyse the water for hydrocarbon content. The presence of asphalt throughout the fill area would suggest that one might indeed expect to find hydrocarbons in the outflow.
What is apparent to me is that there are substantial amounts of building materials that have been placed on Lot 21. There is clear evidence that runoff from this site fails drinking water standards at the point of entry with Shawnigan Creek. And visually, this water looks nothing like any other water in nearby surface and running water. Missing from my analysis is an examination of hydrocarbon contents in the waters. I’ll save that for a later date.
There is conflicting evidence between the expert opinion provided as part of SIA’s application for a permit and that obtained by Shawnigan Resident’s Association. Herein lies the critical problem with the entire permitting process. The Professional Reliance model for project permitting in use in British Columbia is inherently flawed. No matter what project is seeking approval, when the government bases its decision on the professional advice provided by a project proponent, there will always be public concern. In fact basing approval decisions on the Professional Reliance Model makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a project to earn a social license to proceed.
The role of government is to protect the public interest while at the same time giving industry certainty with respect to the project approval process. My own view is that in order for both public and industry interests to be served transparently and fairly, British Columbia should move away from the Professional Reliance Model and instead create arms length and independent expert oversight panel(s). This can be accomplished by expanding in-house government technical expertise and using that expertise to set up independent oversight of a proponent’s project plan, paid for by the proponent. In addition, the Office of the British Columbia Ombudsperson report mentioned above and entitled The Challenges of Using a Professional Reliance in Environmental Protection – British Columbia’s Riparian Areas Regulation outlined a number of ways of improving the Professional Reliance model.
So how do we move forward from here? It makes little sense to me to dump contaminated soils in the Shawnigan Lake watershed. In addition, there are sufficient uncertainties in ground water processes/flow in the region that I don’t believe it is wise to place the contaminated soils at an elevation higher than nearby Sooke Lake (the source of Victoria’s drinking water). While overall risk may be small, it certainly is not zero and so it would be prudent to apply the precautionary principle in light of the stakes involved.
Instead, perhaps one of the three existing sites owned and operated by Tervita on Vancouver Island could take the contaminated soils. One is in the Highlands, one is in Cumberland and one is near Port McNeill. Tervita has a long history of successfully operating contaminated soil sites. If additional capacity is needed, then let’s start the process over again and search for a different location. But this time either follow the advice of the Ombudsperson’s office or establish and independent panel to oversee the permitting process.
I discussed this issue further on CBC radio with Gregor Craigie on Earth Day (April 22, 2015).