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Contaminated soil fight rallies South Cowichan

contaminated-soilHundreds attended rallies in 2013's first quarter to speak their minds about the proposal by South Island Aggregates to dump contaminated soil in their watershed. Photograph by: Citizen file

Sarah Simpson / Cowichan Valley Citizen
January 1, 2014 12:00 AM

It's a fight that dates back years but things really heated up over the last 12 months.

The dirty dirt saga continued to make headlines throughout the 2013 calendar year, with non-stop action - some events making headlines and even more occurring behind the scenes - on the issue of contaminated soils being trucked into the Valley, perilously close to the drinking water supply of upwards of 7,000 Shawnigan Lake residents.

"This has been a very challenging situation that has occupied much time and taken up many resources in both 2012 and 2013," CVRD Board Chair Rob Hutchins admitted.

At the centre of the battle is an application by and subsequent permit issued to South Island Aggregates (SIA) to establish a soil remediation facility in the Shawnigan watershed - an operation that could see up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil every year for the next 50 years treated there.

The issue is much bigger than first thought and will take well into 2014 and even beyond to resolve, according to Cobble Hill Dir. Gerry Giles, the chair of the Cowichan Valley Regional District's soil relocation committee. "The application by SIA to establish a contaminated soil facility in the Shawnigan Lake watershed has brought into sharp focus just how much soil, contaminated or not, is being brought into South Cowichan and the Cowichan Valley in general," Giles said. "As the CVRD became aware of the volume of material being dumped in the Valley, it tried a number of different strategies to deal with this situation."

Both Hutchins and Giles said that although the CVRD has built a more cooperative relationship with the Ministry of Environment over the past year, "this has not halted or slowed the significant tonnage of material flowing into our Valley from our neighbours to the south," Giles noted.

The continued growth of SIA's infrastructure and the steady movement of soil to, from, and near the Cowichan Valley has kept Shawnigan Lake Dir. Bruce Fraser, the vice chair of the CVRD's soils relocation committee, on high alert.

In November, the CVRD and Shawnigan Residents Association learned their request for a stay had been granted. SIA's importation of material had to stop pending the appeal of their permit. While the appeal will be heard in March and April 2014, SIA's work on other fronts has continued.

"SIA is rapidly proceeding with site construction because it is only the import of contaminated soil to the site that was prevented by the stay," Fraser explained. "SIA appears to be supremely confident that they will either win the appeal or have cabinet finally rule in their favour. There is also a stream of material arriving by barge at the Bamfield terminal that is being trucked to a gravel pit on the Malahat Reserve. Is this the material that SIA contracted to receive but can't under the stay?" Fraser wonders if the company has received some help with local stockpiling on a federally administered site that is beyond the reach of provincial jurisdiction.

There are more questions than answers at this point.

As for 2014? "We'll see further dialogue between the CVRD and MOE, which will hopefully ensure the necessary regulations and resources are in place to end the practice of dumping of contaminated soil," Hutchins said.

Meanwhile, the Shawnigan Residents Association (SRA) has vowed to keep up the fight in the coming year.

"Shawnigan Lake is not Victoria's dirty soil dump. Our community has spoken and the SRA has listened and taken action, we do not want a contaminated soil dump in the basin of our watershed," said spokesman Jason Walker. "We must protect our right to clean water and the future of our community at all costs. The SRA believes in the right to clean, safe, drinkable, livable and swimmable water. This permit in no way balances the risk to the people of Shawnigan Lake, nor the health, economic and long term negative impact a contaminated soil dump will have on our community."

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