Shawnigan Lake: Defining New Perspectives

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By contributor Chantelle Spicer

A major take away point in critical thinking is that there are many perspectives in telling a story. This can be applied to better understanding history, relationships, and environmental issues. It’s also becoming even more apparent through the much deliberated issue at Shawnigan Lake, which I covered in issue 10 of the Nav. It helps to find a more educated and balanced point of view to understand and argue from; multiple perspectives are something that every person needs to consider when examining an issue, especially one which has created as much conflict as the one at Shawnigan Lake.

In a meeting delivered to Port Moody Council on January 12, the joint managers of the company who are now running the dumping site at Shawnigan Lake presented their perspective on its happenings. This included some facts regarding safety measures in place to protect what Shawnigan Lake residents are also trying to conserve—the water. The company, South Island Resource Management (SIRM), which is not affiliated with previous managers South Island Aggregates, is asking that we begin to examine exactly what “toxic” might mean on the environmental stage, stating that this word has, of late, been thrown around in an irresponsible and dangerous scare tactic.

It is, for the most part, a fact that the Western society in which we live is run on waste and disposability of many things. This includes items like contaminated soils, such as those being accepted and controlled by SIRM. The company states that what they are managing is exactly that—‘contaminated,’ not ‘toxic.’ The soil which is entering their site contains substances such as cadmium, arsenic, and chromium, among many others, but these all naturally occur in the soil at some level. Shawnigan Lake is not a toxic dump, but a contaminated dump, as defined in the Environmental Management Act.

Many concerns regarding run-off and discharge of contaminated soils, like those raised by Shawnigan Lake residents, media representatives, and scientists alike, all of which concerns are, according to Todd Muzuik of SIRM, unfounded.

“When rain falls into this [contaminated] area, the grade causes it to flow to the back of the Soil Management Area where it drains into containment,” Muzuik says. “No water that contacts contaminated soil is discharged from the site untreated.  All soil ends up in the Permanent Encapsulation Area where it’s stabilized and compacted to geotechnical standards.”

The Permanent Encapsulation Area is a globally recognized seepage protection plan which is comprised of a layer of clay and a 40-mil. synthetic liner that the original management company placed over the natural bedrock of the site. This measure, according to the SIRM’s licensing and global marketing of the technology, is impermeable for thousands of years.

In terms of water, which has been a major driver for the environmental activism seen in this conflict, SIRM states that their management is extensive. It is based off a category system of whether the water has contacted contaminated soil or non-contact water—each of which have their own protocols.

“Contact water” includes rainwater that has fallen on the soil, or which resides in the soil itself, along with any water coming from the trucks being washed upon leaving the site. The contact water is collected and stored within a water containment pond, which SIRM states is “[treated] to better than drinking water standards.

“We test the water at least every 2000 m³, or with every change to the treatment system.”

Despite this, many residents of Shawnigan Lake have reportedly found problems in their waterways, which Muzuik states is just the iron bacteria naturally present in the water. Based off the stringent management practices of SIRM, it seems virtually impossible that contact water could leave the site, which is backed by independent engineers and environmental experts whom also monitor the dump. All in all, SIRM boasts a multi-layer, redundant system by which to protect the environment surrounding their site.

Al Brunet of Shawnigan Lake Residents Association agreed with the SIRM’s statement, saying the waters of Shawnigan Lake are not contaminated nor polluted, and remain drinkable. Muzuik states this is due to the careful consideration that the company has put into controlling contaminated soils entering the site, and that any harm coming to the environment, water, or residents “is purely speculative.” Especially under the area’s current scrutiny, it would not be in the best interest of the company to have less-than-perfect management of the site.

One major point brought up during the discussion at the Port Moody council meeting is the fact that contaminated sites exist everywhere—in fact, there are more than 16 thousand potentially contaminated sites in Canada, and many more that are unregistered. Yet the SIRM site in Shawnigan seems to bear the brunt of concern in terms of environmental activism. Perhaps this is partly due to the perspective missing from this environmental outcry—that until it happens in your backyard, it is often not acted upon.

Many of these sites are around us in our communities, and many in more vulnerable places than Shawnigan Lake. It is in moments like these that companies like SIRM are pushed to become more transparent, the laws around legislation to become more extensive regarding environmental concerns, and the concerned citizens to be allowed to have their voices heard alongside those of large companies. Hopefully, moments like these will push people to create a better way to treat contaminated soils, or to prevent them in the first place and avoid issues like the one at Shawnigan Lake at all. When folks become educated about what they are fighting against (on both sides), a more empathetic and logical mindset can be created—both of which are much needed in this push towards a more sustainable way of life.