Westpro, the contractor in charge of the McKenzie Interchange Project, faces neither an investigation nor any fines following another incident involving a nearby river.
“The ministry is not aware of any active investigations concerning the contractor or any fines that have been issued,” read a statement from the Ministry and Transportation and Infrastructure (MoTI).
The ministry issued the statement after community activists reported seeing the contractor in charge of the $85 million project “dumping … dirty water from the construction site straight into the Colquitz River and Portage Inlet” on Jan. 5.
The salmon-bearing river along with larger eco-system has undergone extensive restorations in recent years, and community activists fear the project will reverse those efforts. The Portage Inlet is a low-flush estuary so its water rarely turns over, said Dorothy Chambers, a local environmentalist and a long-time critic of the project. Contaminants settle and stay, affecting the entire ecosystem, she added.
“Heavy sediment load in water is illegal to discharge, and is particularly harmful to discharge into a fish-bearing stream,” she said. “Heavy sediment load in the water leads to destruction of the delicate gills of the fish through abrasion which irritates the tissues and the fish suffocate as the mucous response builds up on the gills.”
The statement from the ministry acknowledges that during three “brief instances” on Jan. 5 “turbidity levels” at the outlet into the river “briefly exceeded” terms of the contract agreement.
“When this occurred, the outfall drainage rate was immediately adjusted to adhere to project guidelines,” it reads. “During the entire process, environmental monitors were on-site to oversee this work.”
The statement says that “significant rainfall last week” combined with “a pump malfunction at the site” created “some water pooling for portions” of the work area.
According to the statement, guidelines allow for turbid water (within limits) to be discharged when more than 25 mm of rain have fallen in 24 hours. According to Environment Canada, the storm on Jan. 3 saw 57.6 mm of rain in 24 hours.
“Over the past few days, the project contractor has been draining the water,” it reads. “The drainage has occurred during daylight hours so that the water quality of the site discharge could be safely and accurately monitored.”
Environmental staff on site have confirmed that turbidity levels at the outlet into the river are within federal and provincial guidelines and “adhere to the strict environmental conditions,” according to the statement.
“Data provided by the contractor for the period of [Jan. 3-6] show that turbidity measured at the outfall from the project was within federal/provincial guidelines,” it reads.
“Ministry staff will continue to monitor the site to ensure all environmental conditions are being met,” the statement reads. “This will include auditing of the contractors’ environmental performance.”
This is the second incident involving Westpro in as many months. Contaminated water from the construction site entered the river on Dec. 13.
The water breach, which bypassed the legally required on-site filtration system designed to remove contaminates from project wastewater, lasted for about an hour, according to Chambers. “By then the tributary and river itself was thick with their dirty water sediment and I do not know how long they had been pumping into the river before I arrived,” she said.
This type of sediment release in a river is a serious threat to the aquatic life, according to Chambers. The unfiltered water release could set back previous protection and restoration work to the Gorge and the sensitive Colquitz ecosystem (which is also a federally protected bird sanctuary).
MOTI has employed an additional firm on the project to conduct periodic environmental monitoring and auditing to ensure the contractor meets their obligations.