Cleaning Up a Diesel Spill on the Cowichan River

October 31, 2008

Cleaning Up a Diesel Spill on the Cowichan River October 2008 In recent years, the Ministry of Environment has increasingly withdrawn from active governmental environmental regulation and has relied more upon private companies to both carry out work and certify that legal standards have been met. For example, privatized regulatory schemes have been established under the Forest and Range Practices Act, the Sewerage System Regulation, the Riparian Areas Regulation and other laws. Consistent with this general approach, current provincial pollution laws leave clean up of many pollution spills and sites to “qualified environmental professionals” hired by the companies or people at fault. Under the Environmental Management Act, a landowner responsible for a spill is often solely responsible for commissioning the cleanup—while the ministry simply checks periodically to see that the work is meeting ministry guidelines. In some cases, this privatized system has led to inexcusable delays in cleanup. A recent diesel spill near the Cowichan River highlights what is wrong with current regulation of pollution spills. The Cowichan is one of BC’s two designated Heritage Rivers and is Vancouver Island’s most important fishing river. In February 2008, diesel began to leak out of a service station’s underground diesel tank. Government discovered the source of the leak in a few days, but they then basically left it up to the service station owner to fix the problem. However, the cleanup was delayed for six months, resulting in catastrophic pollution damage to the neighbour’s home property-and ongoing pollution of Oliver Creek and the Cowichan River. The service station owner hired consultants to do the remediation work, but there was no overarching cleanup plan, nor was the full extent of the spill determined. Even after more than five months, the leaking tank had not been removed, and the source of the leak had not been stopped. Although the neighbour’s yard had been massively excavated to dig up contaminated soil, the contaminated soil remained on-site. Worried federal Fisheries officials noted that the cleanup work was inadequate and shoddy. Diesel continued to leach into the water, even though salmon runs were expected shortly in the River and Creek. In early August, the ELC wrote a letter to the Minister of Environment on behalf of the Haig-Brown Fly Fishing Association and Watershed Watch Salmon Society. This letter urged the Minister to declare an environmental emergency under the Environmental Management Act, and to order an immediate cleanup. The letter also asked for a public inquiry to investigate:

    • why the pollution had not been cleaned up more than five months following the spill; and
    • how the law could be changed to better deal promptly with such pollution spills.

On September 5, 2008, the Minister issued an order for government to remove all the service station tanks, remove the large mound of contaminated soil, clean up the site, and remediate the neighbours’ properties. He also authorized up to one million dollars to pay for the cleanup. The ELC will continue to seek a public inquiry and develop specific proposals for law and regulatory reform to ensure that government does not allow such delays in pollution clean-up in the future.

Above: Oil absorbent paper floating in Oliver Creek. Photos below:

1) ELC students at Cowichan River;

2) ELC Articled Student Rachel Forbes;

3) damage to neighbouring yard.

When my ELC colleagues and I first visited the Town of Cowichan Lake to see the diesel spill at Oliver Creek—a critical spawning tributary of the Cowichan River—we were amazed at the extent of the damage and at the seemingly patchwork efforts that had been made to mop up the fuel. We believe the polluter should pay, but when the polluter cannot pay it should not mean that the environment has to pay the price. Hearing the news that the province issued a cleanup order, and knowing the efforts that our clients made helped to reach this result, was an amazingly gratifying experience. It was very inspiring to know that I helped citizens and organizations reach their goals and that I truly made a difference in rehabilitating an important ecosystem back to health.-Rachel Forbes, ELC Articled student (May-Sept2008)