As citizens of Canada and stewards of its landscape, it is not unusual for us to talk to government leaders and write letters suggesting where to focus energy and tax money to ensure sustainability of our sources of drinking water, the stability of the banks on which some of our homes are built, the wildlife cycles that keep animal and plant species wild and free, etc. But every so often, there a collective voice speaks and is not heard.
The story of Shawnigan Lake is one in which grandparents rise and dress for long hours out of doors, mothers stand in the rain with their children strapped to their chests, and residents take time off work all taking up the work of activists. But the citizens of Shawnigan Lake in the Cowichan Valley on Vancover Island are not activists. Never have been. They have written thousands of letters, attended public meetings, signed petitions sent to and ignored by their Minister of Environment, organized rallies, applied to the BC Supreme Court, and still, permits have been upheld by the Environmental Appeal Board and supported by the Minister of Environment. And still, the company that continues to dump toxic, contaminated soil into the headwaters of their drinking water source is open for business. And so, the residents wake early, and leave late, taking shifts from dark to dark to stand in front of the 40-tonne semis transporting the contaminated soil.
The story began with a permit in 2008—one granted to South Island Aggregates (SIA), a company selling gravel and aggregate to Victoria and throughout the Cowachin Valley. The deal was, they had to remediate it back to residential or forestry standards when they were done with the land. But in 2012, a different plan unraveled, one that some believe was in place from the beginning. The BC Ministry of Environment (MoE) granted SIA, a.k.a. Cobble Hill Holding (CHH) permission to apply for the permit, and in August 2013, the company was given permission to start their operation, dumping 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil per year for 50 years at the south end of Shawnigan Lake.
The site was never zoned for a dumping site by local government, and for good reason—it is situated at the headwaters of Shawnigan Lake. Over the past four years, residents have received a lot of misinformation about what is protecting them. The 450 feet of “impermeable rock” between the site and the stream that feeds the lake is but one example. Upon further examination, that “impermeable rock” turned out to be fractured bedrock.
On November 13, 2015, a no-water use advisory was put into effect for the residents living on the south end of Shawnigan Lake—water was not to be used for drinking, bathing, or food preparation. Overflow of the water from the dump-site ended up in the stream feeding the lake. Among the toxins being dumped: lead, arsenic, heavy metals, including aluminum, furans, phenols, and dioxins. Though the Ministry of Environment, Mary Polak, and the Environmental Appeal Board assure residents the permit will protect them, SIA/CHH is repeatedly non-compliant and no monitoring process has been put in place to make sure they are following agreed-upon guidelines. Also, the waters of Shawnigan lake are part of the watershed that runs into the ocean at Saanich Inlet. This is not a local problem. It’s a travesty to the environment. Willful damage, inflicted outright for profit.
B.C. leader, including Ms. Polak, attended COP21, the recent climate change summit in Paris. She was among those who pledged to take action to put solutions in place to look after the environment; however, burying our waste, hoping the problem goes away is short sighted. Their presence at Paris’ conference is inauthentic if our leaders believe the actions at Shawnigan Lake are acceptable. If we are going to use a bury-the-waste approach instead of investing in technologies to clean it or help in reducing its production, we better ensure that we are choosing to bury it carefully, in a manner that truly protects people until we know a better way.
Shawnigan Lake is close to our hearts at Mission LED. It is the center of a vibrant community, our water source, a sanctuary of wildlife, and these actions are devastating to the individuals and families who call it home. We have to ask ourselves, is this setting a precedent for future agreements; one where the voices of those set to gain profit are more important than the ones who love where they live and want to protect it? Why are our policies and government not protecting the very things that make our land inhabitable. What happens after 50 years and 50,000,000 tonnes of contaminated soil has been buried here and there is no more money available to ensure the site is safe? Every day, we are doing everything we can to stand up for what we believe is right—protecting what is precious and what we cannot get back if we destroy it.
To find out more about this story, visit the Shawnigan Lake Director’s site:
Or, to support this cause, write a letter to your editor:
Victoria Times Colonist: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cowichan Valley Citizen: email@example.com
Cowichan News Leader: firstname.lastname@example.org
Island Tides: email@example.com
Victoria News: firstname.lastname@example.org
Vancouver Sun: email@example.com
Vancouver Province: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Globe and Mail: email@example.com
National Post: firstname.lastname@example.org
Shawnigan Focus: email@example.com
South Cowichan Echo: firstname.lastname@example.org
About The Author
Serial Entrepreneur, Technologist and Inventor.
My objective is to develop useful products that have a net positive effect in the lives of those that use them and the environment that we live in.
CEO of Mission LED Lighting Company Ltd.
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