A plan to turn a Vancouver Island rock quarry into a dump site for contaminated soil is headed to an Environmental Appeal Board hearing in March, when the project's backers and opponents are expected to square off over whether the facility would threaten drinking water in the region.
The hearing is likely to feature conflicting expert testimony about matters ranging from the type of chemicals that could wind up at the site to whether some of those substances could make their way into nearby Shawnigan Lake.
But while water is the focus of the controversy, approval for the project falls under the Environmental Management Act, not the Water Act, which is out-of-date and due to be replaced.
In the meantime, opponents are battling the project based on current regulations, even as South Island Aggregates Ltd., the company behind the facility, says potential risks have been overblown.
"The site for the dump is directly above [Shawnigan] Lake – and the main stream that feeds the lake is metres away from the site," Shawnigan Residents Association director Anne Marie Thornton said in a recent interview.
"The SRA supports business, we think everybody should be able to make a living – we just don't think a contaminated soil dump belongs in [the Shawnigan Lake] watershed," she added.
The owners of South Island Aggregates referred questions about the project to its engineering firm. The permit granted to the site allows it to handle only "non-leachable" soil that contains contaminants that do not readily dissolve if exposed to water, says Matt Pye, a principal for Active Earth Engineering Ltd., which designed the facility.
"That aspect alone really provides the initial and biggest safeguard in terms of the proposal not having significant potential to impact water quality," Mr. Pye said.
Additional safeguards such as caps and liners are designed to prevent contaminants from leaving the site even in the event of storms or flooding, he added.
The volunteer-run SRA has led the charge against the project, which South Islands Aggregates proposed in 2011. The province issued a waste discharge authorization permit for the facility in August of last year. The SRA appealed the decision the same month, saying the province had failed to consider the risks of the project, including "the consequences that a containment failure would have on the Shawnigan Lake watershed and its drinking water." The Cowichan Valley Regional District also filed an appeal. In November, the Environmental Appeal Board – citing uncertainty around issues including whether chemicals such as dioxins and furans could contaminate ground and surface water – issued a stay order to prevent soil being handled at the site until an appeal is heard.
South Islands Aggregates maintains the project would generate less pollution than trucking contaminated soil from southern Vancouver Island to approved disposal sites on the Lower Mainland and that there is little risk of any contaminants making their way into Shawnigan Lake, which is about five kilometres from the site.
The permit would allow South Islands Aggregates to bury up to 100,000 tonnes of contaminated soil a year at the site for up to 50 years. The facility would not accept hazardous waste and the types and concentrations of soil allowed would be governed by the B.C. Contaminated Sites Regulation.
The controversy over the proposed facility has been heated and politically charged. In last year's provincial election, Green, NDP and Liberal candidates all came out against the project. NDP MLA Bill Routley, who was re-elected for a second term in 2013, criticized the project in the recent debate on the Throne Speech.
The concern about the Cowichan Valley facility and similar concerns about a recently approved hazardous waste facility on the banks of the Fraser River in Chilliwack highlight the need for more muscular water legislation, says NDP environmental critic Spencer Chandra Herbert.
The proposed Water Sustainability Act, drafted last year and likely to be introduced in the spring legislature session, includes seven broad "water policy directions," including groundwater regulation, taking water into account when making land-use decisions and protecting stream health and aquatic environments.
"There are a lot of good words that the government has been saying," Mr. Chandra Herbert said. "The problem is – I don't know if they actually have the resources to make those words a reality."
The EAB decision may not be the final step in the battle over the South Islands Aggregates site. Parties that are dissatisfied with EAB decisions can apply for a judicial review in the Supreme Court of B.C. And the provincial cabinet can vary or rescind an EAB decision if it feels it is in the public interest to do so.
Editor's Note: The original version of this article incorrectly described Mr. Chandra Herbert as Ms. Herbert. This online version has been corrected.