Belcharton Creek Quarry
The following is exerpted from a paper titled "Death of a Creek, A community Experience", by Sharie Conroy, Leigh Lehmann and Heather Morlacci. Given at a conference titled Watercourses, Getting on Stream with Current Thinking, in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, October 22 - 25 of 1996, by the Canadian Water Resourses Association.
Belcharton Creek ( Wilkinson Creek, Department of Fisheries and Oceans records) is located in the Hatzic Valley, a narrow horseshoe shaped valley that runs from the Fraser River north to the Stave Lake. Two thousand residents live in the valleys rich environment of flora and fauna. People from all over the lower Mainland enjoy the lakes, trails and parks. The many creeks and streams drain eventually into the Fraser River either south through Hatzic Lake or north through Stave Lake. The recharge area for Belchaton Creek is the steep, mountainous slope on the valleys west side. About 0.5 km south of the quarry, the water flow divides, creating the two arms of Belcharton, one flows south to the Fraser River. The north arm starts in a pond, which predominately spring fed. The creek then flows through marshes and ponds accumulating water from other creeks and springs as it flows north to Stave Lake. The waters that originate on the quarry site drain into the Belcharton system. There are, as well, lakes approximately 50 m above the working area and beaver ponds about 65 m above the marsh on the quarry property.
The Permitting Process
There were no requirements from the Ministry of Environment (MOE) or Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources (MEMPR) to do complete inventories of fish and wildlife as part of the permitting process. There was no thorough environmental impact review. The geological study of quarry property was minimal. The hydrological concerns were minimized. No study of the quality and quantity of the surface water was done. The uniqueness of the riparian habitat was not acknowledged. There was no preliminary study of blasting and vibration effects on the surrounding land or water.
Since mid-March 1993, MOE staff tried, without success, to get more information about the project. A June 16, 1993 letter from MOE to MEMPR says "We are disappointed that the proposal has been approved without supplying the information we requested in our letter of March 11, 1993 and request that it be frozen until the following concerns are addressed:
Twelve days later, the permit was granted by MEMPR, NO. G-7-123. Some conditions of the permit are; "The Chief Inspector of Mines hereby approves the work plan and program for protection and reclaimation of the land surface and watercourses subject to compliance with the following conditions;
After reviewing the permit in November 1993, a District Inspector for the MEMPR added more conditions to the permit. Some are:
The Settling Pond and Leave Strips
In the approved operation plan, February 15, 1993, the settling pond is shown infringing into the marsh. According to Federal and Provincial Land Development Guidelines however, the leave strips should be 30 metres from the high water mark or from the point where riparian plants no longer grow. On June 16, 1993, MOEs Planning and assesment Surrey office, strongly expressed to MEMPR their dissatisfaction with the quarry plans, noting that much of the operation would be "immediately adjacent to Belcharton Creek". MOE requested that the plans be modified to "insure all development is outside of this sensitive area." Yet it took until June of 1994 for MEMPR to deal with this demand. Even then, MEMPRs proposal solution is not in accordance with the Land Use Guildlines. They state the plans will be changed to create 15 metre leave strips, thus moving berms out of the area, (MEMPR June 27, 1994). Response from MOE is quite clear, "Watercourses require 30 metre leavestrips, on each side, within industrial developments" (MOE, July 12, 1994) A week later MEMPR writes to the permit holder informing them that MOE recommends "..an undisturbed leave strip of 30 metres width on each side of the water course "(MEMPR, July 19, 1994). Still MOE and MEMPR could not agree on the leave strip as shown in further memos. In a March 6, 1995 memo MEMPR states "The settling pond was built as per the approved drawings and is 30 metres from the centre of the creek that connects the two pond areas".
The First Mud Spill, Fall 1994
On October 24, 1994, the quarry operators started to remove overburden on the steep hillside rising out of the pond. Loose dirt was left exposed and disturbed. After several days of heavy rain, on November 30, 1994, the inevitable happened. Runoff brought torrents of mud down the slope. The settling pond served as a catchment for some of the muddy water. The pond quickly reached capacity so that mud overflowed directly into the marsh. Residents, not surprised, arrived on the scene with cameras to record the event. The Federal Department of Oceans and Fisheries (DFO) was quick to respond, but neglected to take water samples. Therefore there was no legal evidence of the increased turbidity over the 75 ppm limit. MEMPR officials arrived the day after when the rain had stopped and turbidity had decreased significantly. In spite of all the photographs and witnesses, no charges were laid.
On April 5, 1995, a meeting between the Mines Inspector and MOE staff took place at the quarry. Finally, the parameters of the 30 metre leave strip were identified and located. MOE also stipulated that any previously disturbed land within the buffer zone must be revegetated to the natural state, (MOE April 28, 1995).
In May of 1995 MEMPR sent a letter to the quarry operators summerizing the letters sent by residents concerned about issues of the impact of blasting on the quality of surface and groundwater. In a June 1, 1995 letter, the operators adamantly dismissed all the concerns. As well they down played the possibility of damage from the blasting to homes, wells, and domestic water systems. After the operators answer to MEMPRs letter, there was no further action taken by the ministry.
Blasting began in July of 1995. On the 21st, tons of rock were blasted into the creek. Piles of rock ended up in the riparian zone. The creek was absolutely brown with debris. The community was in an uproar. Video tape of the event was sent to the chief fMines Inspector, a conservation officer, and others. Phone calls were made to MEMPR and MOE. CBC Radio did another interview with local residents. (Simpson July 27, 1995). What was the result? Blasting did not stop. The blasts were to be "smaller", so that no fly rock could reach the creek. (MOE, Dec. 13, 1995, MEMPR Dec. 21, 1995). Again, no charges were laid for polluting the creek or contaminating the reparian zone.
In September of 1995 MOE set guidelines for an underground detention pond to replace the settling pond. The existing pond was to be filled with rock, covered with filter cloth and top soil and be replanted as a vegitated buffer. What actually was done was the pond was filled with large shot rock, covered with filter cloth and drain rock, then used as a turn around area for dump trucks. After community complaints the area was separated by large boulders to stop vehicle access.
More Mud Flows
In early October, 1995, the rains came again. Equipment was working in the loose dirt on top of the steep stripped slope. The runoff came down the slope in waterfalls/mudfalls, and directly into the marsh and creek. The quarry employees were working in mud up there knees trying to divert the "clean" runoff above the workings through Big "O" and plastic pipe directly into the marsh, but mud from the exposed hillside kept flowing into the watercourse. An MOE Conservation Officer visited the site. Then, (MOE, November 10, 1995) MOE requested the operation be required to retain the services of an Environmental Monitor. There was more muddy water in the spring of 1996. The Environmental Consultant that was to monitor the site and report to MOE as of May 1996, has not submitted any reports. It is unknown how many times this person has been onsite during "precipitation events". There has been no revegetation of the disturbed riparian areas. The siltation fences have been neglected. An updated copy of the permit has been requested, but none forwarded, so it can be assumed that the original has not been changed. Additionally truckloads of overburden and rock was dumped into the marsh in October 1995. MOE, in spite of being kept up to date, has not effectively been able to protect the aquatic habitat. Each spring and fall the valleys torrential rains guarantee there will be more episodes of muddy water.
Blasting started in July 1995. The first explosion on July 6 shot rock into the creek. The whole creek basin was covered in a chemical fog which took more than an hour to dissipate. A number of residents were able to observe from neighbouring properties. On July 20 while doing so they were told that they were standing in the danger zone, which for this blast was 310 metres from the explosion. By the next day the Mines Inspector had convinced the local RCMP that they had the jurisdiction to move people from private property to accomplish a commercial blast (MEMPR, July 21, 1995). After calls and letters to MEMPR and MOE Conservation Officers responded, recommending that the shot rock be removed from the leave strip. Still no charges were laid, but, the blasting material was to be changed so that large amounts of nitrates would not end up in the water, (Inspector of Mines, Dec. 21, 1995).
The creek is also at risk from petrochemical pollution. Fuel leaks from equipment and accidental damage to fuel tanks most likely. The rock crusher fuel tank, holding about 4,000 litres, is within 30 metres of the watercourse. On June 22, 1996, a front end loader rolled over on the hillside. There was a spill of potentially 1000 litres of hydrocarbons and gylcol. The machine was on its side for 48 hours. As of June 25, no environmental clean up was apparent. Much of the spill will end up in Belcharton Creek and possibly the groundwater.
It does no good to have wonderful legislation and programs if the regulations are not understood, followed and enforced. Had MEMPR consulted with the local community during the permitting process, they would have had a more complete picture of what could happen. The community could have contributed local environmental knowledge that would have provided necessary and otherwise unavailable data. Better decisions would have been made possible. Valley residents were shocked to learn how little input MOE had in the pre-permit stage. If there had been better consultation between MEMPR and MOE it would not have taken two years before MEMPR accepted the need for 30 metre leave strips. We see the health of the surface water in the area as a reflection of what could be happening under ground. When we see springs exposed by blasting, it becomes clear that none of the other bedrock springs we use are safe. When we feel the ground shaking during explosions, we are not surprised to learn that some of us are experiencing increased turbidity and decreased flow in our wells. B.C. urgently needs stronger legislation to protect ground and surface water. In a February 21, 1996 letter the Ministry of Mines wrote " during the past year my staff have carried out more inspections of this site than any other mine in the province, including mines hundreds of times larger than the quarry in question". This begs the question, Have we been successful?