Stephen Hume: Tests trigger alarm over contamination
B.C. government has known for six months of elevated nitrite and arsenic levels
Environment Minister Mary Polak has to ‘step up’ and order more indepth testing, said Cowichan Valley Regional District director Sonia Furstenau (right), shown with Shawnigan Lake resident Georgia Collins in front of the old quarry being used for polluted soil .
Photograph by: Stephen Hume Vancouver Sun , Vancouver Sun
VICTORIA — Heavy metals, petroleum and nitrite has contaminated soil and groundwater in a Vancouver Island watershed that supplies 12,000 people downstream from a controversial polluted-soil dump approved by the province.
And the province has known of elevated nitrite and arsenic levels in the groundwater for more than six months, says Sonia Furstenau, Cowichan Valley Regional District director for the Shawnigan district.
Furstenau says a June report by the Environment Ministry, obtained by an environmental researcher, contains overlooked data tables that show that dissolved arsenic and nitrite in groundwater exceeded drinking water standards. Nitrite exposure is associated with “blue baby syndrome.” Long term low level exposure to arsenic is associated with increased cancer risk.
“Essentially, what the Ministry of Environment is telling the people dealing with the Shawnigan Lake contaminated soil dump is that everything is OK. That there are no signs of off-site contamination of surface or groundwater,” says John Werring of the David Suzuki Foundation. “This report says otherwise.”
“Their data clearly indicate that in one well concentrations of arsenic, aluminum, lead, iron, and uranium were more than double the standards for drinking water. A reasonable conclusion to draw from this is that the groundwater should be considered to be contaminated,” Werring said.
The Shawnigan Residents Association released results of its own soil tests in January. They confirm petroleum and heavy metals.
The site, provincially approved to remediate millions of tonnes of contaminated soil over the next half century, triggers fierce controversy. There have been demonstrations, arrests and court cases.
The Malahat First Nation’s chief resigned after allegations he got consulting fees from the site’s owners. The new chief reversed course on grounds it wasn’t getting adequate information from the province. Cowichan Tribes are opposed.
Victoria’s city council unanimously asked the province to revoke the soil dump’s permit because science supporting the project is in dispute.
The site’s operator did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Environment Minister Mary Polak’s office.
The latest test results found 31 provincially regulated hydrocarbons and heavy metals including lead, cadmium, arsenic, barium, bismuth, beryllium, chromium, iron, mercury, nickel, vanadium, zinc and cobalt in soil next to part of the landfill known as Lot 21.
And critics complain that instead of deep core sampling of Lot 21 to find out what’s buried in it, government instead tested only the top 10 centimetres.
Resident Robert Crandall sampled soil and sediments in January following several heavy rainfall events. While he says only one metal — cobalt — exceeded provincial standards and there’s no cause for alarm about the immediate hazard of the others, the presence of so many metals raise questions about where they originate and what will happen over time.
“There’s a lot of stuff moving off that site,” he said. “It’s the tea-bag effect of a large store of contaminated material.”
Al Brunet, vice-president of the resident’s association, said residents worry about the long-term accumulation of even small quantities of heavy metals leaching out of Lot 21.
“We’re only 12 months into a 50-year agreement,” he said. “Once this stuff starts to leach over a 50-year contract, how do you stop it? Well, you don’t.”
He said that although by the time contaminants reach the lake they would be diluted — he still takes his household water from the lake — other people worry.
“This is creating a lot of stress around the community. There are some who are absolutely scared to death. The government tells you that X parts per million are safe and then you exceed that — well, there’s a problem here.”
Even small quantities of petroleum threaten aquatic life in fish-bearing waters. Lead is a known neurotoxin. Cadmium is associated with kidney damage and brittle bones. Published research suggests both may cause negative health effects at much lower exposures than previously thought.
Brunet said the community wants the government to do deep core sampling on the Lot 21 site.
“The ministry should be taking this seriously. We may have an emergency on our hands that could poison the aquifer. This could become a public health emergency. Wouldn’t it behoove them to find out what’s down there?”
Furstenau said she wasn’t optimistic about a provincial response.
“The Ministry of Environment has lost the trust of the Shawnigan community,” she said. “There are several metals at the bottom of Lot 21 that are not naturally occurring in this environment. This comes back to the questions (Green party leader) Andrew Weaver posed in July — where are these metals coming from and why is ministry staff not taking this issue seriously.”
Weaver reiterated his question Thursday.
“What is causing these high levels of heavy metals? There’s no accountability. They’ve gone into rope-a-dope mode.”
NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert alluded to Flint, Michigan, where criminal investigations under underway into how government saved money by switching municipal water systems to a polluted source.
“We can’t let that happen here. Why hasn’t government gone in and done real testing.”
“Most astonishing,” said Furstenau,” is that the ministry is ignoring its own evidence of groundwater contamination at this site, as demonstrated in the data of their own report. This situation is wholly unacceptable.
“It’s time for Mary Polak to step up.”