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17th November 2019
Times Colonist
29 Oct 2019
The B.C. government has backed off its deadline to close a contaminated soil dump at Shawnigan Lake this month, instead relenting to pressure from the owner and granting a 10-month reprieve to one of the most politically sensitive projects in the province.

Environment Minister George Heyman agreed to property owner Cobble Hill Holdings’ request to push back an Oct. 31 closure deadline until Aug. 31, 2020.

“It is infuriating,” said Cowichan Valley Green MLA Sonia Furstenau, who has been a leading opponent of the landfill. “Once again, we’re in endless rounds of the company not meeting the requirements and conditions that government sets out … and the consequence is that they just get to carry on and get further extensions.”

The additional 10 months will give the company time to bring in extra fill soil to cap the site — a contentious measure opposed by local residents who had wanted to see the original toxic soil removed, not buried under more soil.

Cobble Hill Holdings will make money by importing the fill. Its new plan indicates it will generate that money upfront by importing it and stockpiling the fill in locations around the site, before it completes the majority of remediation work.

“All reasonable efforts will be made to complete the closure works in a timely manner. However, the quality of work shall not be jeopardized by attempting construction during inclement weather,” the company said in a recent letter to the government.

Heyman attached the condition that Cobble Hill Holdings conduct “a comprehensive pre-winter inspection of the landfill” to check and fix any threat of leaks. It must also drill two new shallow monitoring wells within 30 days.

His ministry said in a statement that the extension was “based on careful consideration of environmental risks” and that “staff will continue to monitor work being done, and intervene as necessary.”

Heyman said Monday that the government had taken so long doing its “due diligence” in approving the first closure plan that it had not left Cobble Hill Holdings enough time to complete the plan without an extension.

“Legally, I have to consider any application for an extension made,” Heyman said Monday. “I granted this one because they had a legal case that I delayed their commencement. That’s certainly not going to be the case going forward.”

Furstenau said Cobble Hill Holdings should not be allowed to bring in extra soil before its monitoring wells are dug.

The contaminated-soil landfill is directly uphill from Shawnigan Lake, which is the source of drinking water for about 12,000 people.

The Shawnigan Lake site remains a politically sensitive project. The previous Liberal government revoked the landfill’s operating permit in 2017, after court battles and a leak. The company responded by suing former environment minister Mary Polak and Furstenau.

Furstenau parlayed her opposition to the project into a 2017 election victory in the riding. Her anger at the previous Liberal government’s handling of the site helped push the Greens to topple the Liberals and support the NDP in a power-sharing deal that has let Premier John Horgan govern.

However, Furstenau has since expressed disappointment that the NDP government has not acted as decisively to close the site as it had promised.

“It is just so frustrating to be in this place with a new minister and a new government, to feel like it’s the same scenario that we were in in the past,” she said.

“No matter what kind of evidence there is, what kind of lack of compliance, lack of meeting deadlines, it just seems like there’s sort of an endless forgiveness for this company and a lack of recognition that public good, the public interest, seems to be at the bottom of the list here.”

Critics of the site have long warned that Cobble Hill Holdings could default on the property and that the mess, including the cost of remediation, would fall to provincial taxpayers.

The company owed $37,650 in unpaid taxes for the site earlier this year. The land title database listing for the property now cites a “pending foreclosure” on the property if the taxes are not paid by the end of November.

Heyman said Monday he is not legally allowed to consider the unpaid taxes or pending foreclosure in making his environmental decisions. “In the end, whoever owns the property will still be responsible for closure,” he said.