Protesters of a contaminated soil dump in Shawnigan Lake showed they aren’t backing down from the B.C. government as they staged their biggest demonstration yet Wednesday.

An estimated crowd of around 500 people gathered at the dump on 460 Stebbings Road, while media and government officials were given helicopter tours of the site many residents believe is poisoning their drinking water.

Demonstrators also got creative, handing out murky brown bottles of water labeled “Polak Springs,” named after the environment minister Shawnigan Lake residents say is ignoring their calls to suspend the dump’s permit.

“I’m doing this for my daughter and my future grandchildren,” said Kyla Mortil. “I’m angry and I’m frustrated with our government that they haven’t stepped in to stop this. This is going into my drinking water. My children are drinking this, my pets are drinking this.”

But some protesters may have gone too far, according to South Island Resource Management Ltd., which operates the site.

It claimed an unauthorized person entered an active mine area at the site at around 10:50 a.m. Wednesday and “committed an unlawful act when they trespassed into the mine area.”

That forced operators to shut down the site temporarily to protect workers as well as the individual, the company said.

“We will take all reasonable lawful action to stop dangerous and harmful behaviour that puts our company, our employees and the welfare of people who rely on our operation at risk,” it said.

It is unclear whether charges will be laid in the alleged incident.

Long-standing conflict

The dump, which sits on a slope above the lake, has passed multiple government investigations and environmental appeals, but a contamination scare caused by a massive storm in November enraged some residents.

It was reported that surface water from the site overflowed into part of the lake during a period of heavy rainfall. Island Health said tests confirmed there was no risk to public health after the suspected leak.

The ministry threatened to suspend SIA’s permit if it couldn’t ensure that surface water was contained to the site, but later said the dump was in compliance with environmental management practices.

Still, protesters aren’t convinced that contaminates are being properly contained to the site.

“The fact that we still have no independent assessment of the geology, the hydrogeology and the engineering at this site – it’s time to stop operations and put the protection of this drinking water first,” said Sonia Furstenau, Area Director for Shawnigan Lake. “We have experts…who are saying there are real problems at this site and they’re raising the alarm. We’re listening to the experts. We have no idea who Christy Clark and Mary Polak are listening to.”

Green Party of BC Leader Andrew Weaver, who has conducted his own tests of surface water, said the government has yet to study the cumulative effects contaminants can have on human health.

“The ministry seems to be abdicating its responsibility here,” he said. “When new evidence is brought forward, they have a duty and a responsibility not to dismiss that evidence – but to actually stand back and ask ‘what’s in the best public interest here?’”

Last July, Weaver said he found minor levels of heavy metals leeching into a creek which runs into the lake.

Government, soil dump operator stand firm

But the province maintains that the site and its operators are acting appropriately.

“The ministry will continue to monitor the site closely; to-date samples have shown no concern for human health or environmental impacts,” it said in a statement Wednesday.

In its statement about the alleged trespasser, SIRM said that it upholds high environmental standards at the site and operates within the law.

“There is no quantifiable risk from the site to human health in the Shawnigan Lake watershed and we continue to hope that reasonable debate will prevail,” it said.