Above: Shawnigan Lake via thesra.ca

By contributor Chantelle Spicer

It doesn’t get more everyday earth than water. Water is our most valuable resource—giver and taker of life—and I am searching to get to know it better. After researching and writing last issue’s column, “Going with the flow,” I realized I could not examine issues surrounding watersheds in the Vancouver Island area without examining the turmoil over the Shawnigan Lake watershed.

In the summer of 2015, many community watersheds of eastern Vancouver Island, including those in Nanaimo and Parksville, were under water-usage restrictions, proving how vulnerable they are to climatic conditions. So why is it that so many watersheds, such as the one in Shawnigan, are facing increased pressures of contamination due to human decisions? As has been evidenced by previous years of droughts and higher-than-average temperatures, the value of these waters as a vital resource will only become more prevalent.

During the last year, many news articles, media reports, blogs, and Facebook posts have chronicled the situation happening with our southern neighbours in their quest for safe drinking water and healthy waterways. Protesters wave signs, speeches are made by residents and corporations, and deeply held values about the quality of water (in terms of natural, spiritual, or literal value of the resource) are shaken. Perhaps even more tragically, deeply held beliefs that the provincial government is looking out for its residents and lands are destroyed.

Let’s go back in time: A gravel pit supplies tiny, fractured rocks to many corners of the Island for multiple uses, as managed by Cobble Hill Holdings. Many of these pits exist on the Island, all governed under the Mines Act of 1996. This particular pit resides on land which is 5.2 km up-slope from Shawnigan Lake, a body which supplies the nearby community with clean, quality drinking water. Adjacent to the pit is Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) parkland, which is used by wildlife and area residents alike. The park is a rural, tranquil home to eight thousand residents within the Shawnigan Lake area whom, in 2012, had no idea they were to be thrust into the global spotlight in regards to the value of clean water and the dishonesty of industry and government.

In early 2012, a permit was requested by Cobble Hill Holdings/South Island Aggregates (SIA) to begin dumping soil contaminated with hydrocarbons, phenols, arsenic, lead, and chlorids from Victoria harbour into their active rock quarry. The request sat in contrast to the legislation of the Mines Act, which required developers to remediate pits with clean soil only. The company explained to both the concerned Shawnigan citizens and government that a geological consultant, Active Earth, had tested the area and found the bedrock to be made of impermeable granite. To further reassure citizens, the company offered to protect from leaching by lining the dump with clay and a rubber blanket, making it impervious for over 10 thousand years. The permit was granted in March 2012, allowing for the disposal of 100 thousand tonnes of contaminated soil every year for the next 50—a total of five million tonnes of toxic soil—and SIA would begin profiting from the disposal of their difficult chemical burdens.

Shortly after permit’s approval, the Shawnigan Residence Association (SRA) received information from a whistle-blower within SIA that the information the company had provided was inaccurate and potentially dangerous. In response to this, the SRA hired their own independent hydro-geologist who found that the bedrock, which had been under the stress of the industry and explosives for years, was a bed of faults and fractures. With this new information, the SRA turned to the Ministry of Environment (MoE) and the Environmental Appeals Board to shut down soil dumping operations. Instead of litigation, what the SRA found was an MoE ready to fight against them, and an Appeals Board working to protect SIA operations. This led SRA member Al Brunet to wonder what the overall benefit of the permit is that the MoE is willing to fight so hard for it at the cost of its own residents. Further information was leaked to the SRA in 2015 that an affiliation had been created between South Island Aggregates and their scientific consulting company, Active Earth. This raised pressing concerns regarding the validity of the scientific independence of the report, as well as the permit itself. Today, both the permit and the operations continue unabated.

“We [Shawnigan],” Brunet says, “have come to realize it doesn’t matter what makes sense and what doesn’t.”

The SRA turned to its own local community and the Supreme Court in search of justice. Currently, two actions against SIA exist, one with the SRA and one put into effect by CVRD, whom claims that SIA is not complying with local legislation which restricts the dumping of contaminated soil within the Valley. During all legal proceedings, SIA has continued to dump its toxic soils into the contested area.

The turmoil has created a community which extends beyond Shawnigan and into both Nanaimo and Victoria, as well as questions of government power and its commitment to environmental health. Many people in the area are sensitive to quality of water, loss of property value, and impending human health concerns which are intrinsically related to the health of the environment. It has also created a community which has strengthened through its resolve; on January 6, 2016, hundreds of people took to the streets to protest against dumping operations.

After three years, the Shawnigan Lake issue is showing no signs of going away as neither the provincial government nor the community are willing to give up on their differing, deeply-seeded values. Citizens of Victoria have become increasingly concerned, as a portion of their own watershed, the Sooke Lake Reservoir, is connected to Shawnigan Lake through underground aquifers, showing—once again—that all water is connected. Our Island, like the rest of the world, is a web of connections through our waterways, both seen and unseen.

The crisis surrounding Shawnigan Lake is precedent setting. Every other privately-owned water source, including our own Nanaimo Lakes Watershed, is at risk of reaching the same situation. Any gravel pit existing or being created in BC could become a site for dumping contaminated soils created by industry, regardless of environmental risk.

A lot can be learned from what’s happening at Shawnigan Lake. One of the most important things is that the true value of water can never be monetary. It is a transient and vital force on the landscape upon which all life depends. Take time in the near future to visit a local body of water—whether ocean, marsh, river, or lake—and spend some time with it. Let your mind flow like the water itself, and remember how precious the relationship is. For all of its history, water has been a sign of community and well-being, the lifeblood which ties all people together and to the land. It would be amazing to see it return to this state.

For more information on the Shawnigan Lake Watershed and the soil dump, please visit The Shawnigan Residence Association at thesra.ca where you can also donate to the cause or become a member. Or visit the blog of SRA Director at soniafurstenau.ca.