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Residents of Shawnigan Lake, B.C. are appealing to the federal government to overturn a permit that allows dumping of contaminated soils uphill from their watershed.
Three years ago, in this quiet, picturesque west coast town, community members were informed of a proposal to turn a local quarry into a contaminated soil site close to their water source. In spite of hundreds of letters, official petitions and environmental appeal board hearings with professional support, as of March this year, South Island Aggregates (SIA) received permission to bring 100,000 tons of contaminated soil each year for 50 years to the quarry site.
Trucks began arriving with contaminated soil -- containing dioxins, furans, phenols, hydrocarbons, arsenic, lead and chloride, among other chemicals -- in November.
"It's a spectacularly beautiful place and people move here because it's a healthy lifestyle. It has clean water and it's a beautiful place to live," says Sonia Furstenau, Shawnigan Lake Area Director. "But right in front of our eyes that's being taken away from us."
The area in question lies above the community's drinking water source which is also a salmon habitat. Yet the site is not completely contained and after the first heavy rainfall since dumping began, there was enough concern about potential contaminants in the water that the entire community of 8,000 residents was under a strict five-day advisory to not use the water.
Island Health issued the no-water-use advisory as a precaution due to what they referred to as a suspected non-containment of surface water from the South Island Aggregates site
Island Health lifted the advisory for the south end of Shawnigan Lake after inspections and Ministry of Environment laboratory tests confirmed there was no risk to the public's health.
South Island Aggregates has also been clear to state that it is in compliance with the permit issued by the Ministry of the Environment.
"We were eight months into a permit that allows for 50 years of dumping and after the first rain event we couldn't touch our water," says Furstenau.
Fuelled by common concern, fear and anger, Shawnigan Lake residents have been protesting the dumping, since it began, five days per week. Mothers, children, grandparents and professionals alike arrive at the site every weekday morning to slow down the trucks' progress as much as possible.
SIA applied for an injunction against the protestors, resulting in police officers now being required to arrest anyone standing in the way of the trucks -- even if they don't want to.
"There's a really fierce determination in the community to put up a fight against this," says Furstenau. "There's a great deal of respect and compassion and kindness between the protestors and the police…they live in this community too. And they drink the water too."
The compassion and local support hasn't stopped there. Furstenau also says she has heard stories of a trucker joining the protestors and an SIA employee walking off of the job site.
In spite of this local dedication, the community's watershed is still at severe risk from the contaminated site as dumping continues daily. Little action has taken place by the provincial government to assist Shawnigan Lake Residents and as a result, Furstenau and her fellow community members are reaching out to the federal government and the media for support.
"We need help," says Furstenau. "We are making a collective cry out to Canada."
Editor's update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested there was a concern about potential contaminants in the water leading to a "no-water-use" advisory. That advisory was lifted after testing and inspections confirmed there was never any danger of contaminants entering the water supply at any time. South Island Resource Management Ltd. has stated that its contaminated soil and water management systems have been confirmed by independent engineers and the Ministry of the Environment to be working exactly as designed and permitted. We apologize for any harm our error may have caused.
Alyse is a Vancouver-based writer and editor with a passion for social justice, storytelling and tea. She studied English Literature and Global Development at Queen's University and believes in the ability to make positive changes through media that digs deep, asks questions and shares narratives. Alyse was the Editor of Servants Quarters and has written for the Queen's News Centre, Quietly Media and the Vancouver Observer.
Photo: flickr/ David Stanley
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