B.C. residents claim water at risk from government-approved landfill site
Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island is a pristine body of water that provides recreation, awesome views and clean drinking water to 12,000 people. But just up the hill from this slice of paradise is a contaminated landfill site that’s threatening the community’s way of life.
In August of 2013 the B.C. government granted South Island Aggregates a permit to dump 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year for the next 50 years. The permit allows for a long list of chemicals including, dioxins, furans, hydro carbons, metals, arsenic, and lead.
The granting of the permit to operate the landfill immediately caught the attention of Sonia Furstenau of the Shawnigan Lake Residents Association. Furstenau questioned the decision by the government, and in an interview with W5 said, “It's uphill from the drinking water source, and you don't put contaminated landfills up from the drinking water source.”
It was the beginning of an ongoing legal fight that has dragged on now for almost four years. Fifteen thousand residents have signed a petition and hundreds of letters have been written to the provincial Ministry of the Environment demanding the landfill be closed until a complete investigation into the environmental impact of the site is complete. The Residents Association tells W5 it’s concerned with what it sees as suspicious activity surrounding the awarding of the permit.
Before SIA was given the go ahead to turn the existing rock quarry into a landfill they were required to hire an engineering company to study the location of the site, and whether the chemicals would be contained and not be a threat to the clean water supply of Shawnigan Lake downstream. The company they hired was Active Earth Engineering.
According to Furstenau, Active Engineering reported back to the Minister of the Environment that the quarry was sitting on 250 feet of impermeable rock and that it offered the most amazing natural protection you could possibly want for a landfill. They claimed it would last 103,000 years.
Despite Active Earth Engineering’s assurances, at least nine Hydrogeological experts testified before the Environmental Assessment Board questioning whether building a landfill uphill from the lake was appropriate, and if the dumped chemicals could be safely contained.
Based on evidence supplied by Active Earth Engineering the government granted the permit.
Not long after the permit was awarded, memos of a secret deal surfaced between South Island Aggregates, and Active Earth, whose report helped convince the government to approve the dumping. The deal between the two companies called for a 50/50 split in future profits from the landfill. The companies maintain that while signed the deal has not been acted upon.
The Shawnigan Lake Residents Association also discovered an arrangement between the then- Chief of the Malahat First Nation, Michael Harry, and SIA. Harry was offered free road construction work for his reserve, along with a consultation fee based on 50 cents for every tonne of soil brought to the site in exchange for not voting against the landfill site. Mr. Harry has since resigned as Chief of the Malahat First Nation and the new Chief has now gone on record against the landfill.
W5 requested an interview with SIA President Mike Kelly, but his lawyer advised him to keep his comments confined to the courtroom. We caught up with Kelly on the streets of Victoria to question the optics of a backroom deal with Active Earth, the company hired to do the environmental assessment, but Kelly wouldn’t comment. The Senior Engineer at Active Earth, Matt Pye, also refused to talk to W5.
Since the discovery of the secret deal with Active Earth and SIA, and the arrangement with former Chief Michael Harry, all sides are back in court. The Residents Association want the government to shut the landfill down until a complete review of the environmental assessment is completed.
Despite the on-going assurances of the government, in mid-November 2015 after heavy rains, the community’s worst fears were realized. The Environment Ministry issued a no drinking and bathing advisory for anyone near Shawnigan Lake due to a suspected non-containment of surface water from the South Island Aggregates site.
The drinking/bathing alert was lifted after a couple of days but the Shawnigan Lake Residents association claims the damage has already been done. Furstenau told W5 that residents have been drinking from the lake for decades and are now living in fear and constant stress over the quality of their water.