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17th November 2019
Times Colonist
30 Oct 2019

Provincial taxpayers could be on the hook for cleaning up a contaminated-soil site near Shawnigan Lake after the government confirmed that the company involved is within weeks of forfeiting the property.

The company that owns a controversial contaminated soil dump near Shawnigan Lake is within weeks of forfeiting the entire mess to the province due to unpaid taxes.

The Ministry of Finance confirmed Tuesday that Cobble Hill Holdings owes $38,106.80 in unpaid taxes dating to 2017, plus penalties and interest. Under B.C.’s law on overdue rural property taxes, the property will be forfeited to the B.C. government on Dec. 1.

Cobble Hill Holdings could pay the outstanding taxes and penalties and try to recover the property within three years.

The forfeiture risk has left critics such as Cowichan Valley Green MLA Sonia Furstenau worried provincial taxpayers could be on the hook for remediating the site’s hundreds of thousands of tonnes of contaminated soil and the cost of preventing any future leaks into the nearby Shawnigan Lake watershed.

Capping the site, preventing leaks and monitoring safety are supposed to be the responsibility of Cobble Hill Holdings as a condition of a closure plan that stems from a 2017 government order to shut down the site. The closure plan had a deadline of Oct. 31, but Environment Minister George Heyman this month granted a 10-month extension to Aug. 31, 2020.

The Ministry of Environment said there are six “named parties” on the closure plan that would ultimately be responsible.

“Even if the named parties forfeit the property, the ministry would still require the named parties to close the site as per the closure plan,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The province does not become a person responsible for remediation of a site through involuntarily acquisition.”

Four of the six named parties are owners, directors and businesses connected to Cobble Hill Holdings, which owes the back taxes.

Not only are the companies liable, but also the two individually named directors, Michael Kelly and Martin Block, according to the ministry.

The other two named companies are construction and engineering firms that operate the site under a lease — South Island Resource Management and Allterra Construction. They are functionally the same company, according to ministry documents.

Even with a forfeiture, a spill-prevention order remains in place for the property, citing the six named parties, said the ministry.

The previous Liberal government’s approval of the Shawnigan Lake site was a large factor in the B.C. Green Party’s decision to sign a power-sharing deal with the NDP after the 2017 election.