Soil remediation presents challenges and opportunities for Kus-kus-sum restoration in Courtenay

Soil remediation presents challenges and opportunities for Kus-kus-sum restoration in Courtenay
The Kus-kus-sum site is pictured in 2022 in this file photo.

Project Watershed is fundraising for the Kus-kus-sum restoration effort due to unexpected soil redistribution costs. The community project is restoring the habitat of an old industrial site along the K’omoks Estuary. This involves concrete removal, recontouring, and native species replanting.

Now, due to a new provincial protocol surrounding soil contaminants called Protocol 19, Project Watershed needs to raise more funds for soil redistribution. The protocol changes the regulations in regards to how soil contaminants are dealt with and redistributed in certain sites.

The land initially cost about $3.2 million to purchase and restoration costs were estimated at about $5.2 million. Accounting for the new costs associated with soil management, the organization still needs to raise another $1.5 million.

SEE PREVIOUS: Unpaving paradise: Former Courtenay mill site becoming part of estuary

Caitlin Pierzchalski, Project Watershed’s executive director, says that estuarine soils are naturally quite salty, and chloride is one of the contaminants listed in the new protocol. Another chemical that naturally occurs in many of Vancouver Island’s marine soils is arsenic.

“Now that they are listed as a contaminant, we are not able to dispose of them at certain facilities, because they could negatively impact water quality if there’s drinking water sources or groundwater sources around,” said Pierzchalski.

Despite these contaminants being naturally present, they still have the potential to pose a threat to an area if the area does not naturally contain these components. This means more testing is required for the Kus-kus-sum site, as well as potential sites for the redistribution.

The name Kus-kus-sum was given to the site by K’omoks First Nation. The name means “very slippery,” and is the same name of a nearby village that existed before colonization.

In a Salish Sea Sentinel article by Cara McKenna and David P. Ball, K’omoks artist Andy Everson said that its name was important, because it honours the traditional history of the land. The article shared how the site was not only home to a village but also near a burial site.

“It’s a real sense of place and home, when I look out across the home and see the beach and the mountains, it’s where I belong,” he said.

Wedlidi Speck, who is Kwakwakaʼwakw and K’omoks, told the Salish Sea Sentinel that the name Kus-kus-sum may refer to traditional preparation methods for salmon.

“How they rendered parts of the salmon, over a period of time, when salmon is decaying it turns to oil,” he said.

The site is near an ancient K’omoks fishing site, home to traps estimated to be about 1,300 years old. The fishing traps contain information about an ancient and complex fish trap system.

According to School District 71’s Indigenous Education program, the traps were made of Douglas Fir sapling poles and wooden planks along the flats in the estuary. At high tide, the fish would get directed into the wide part of the traps, and then get stuck. At low tide, the residents of the village would be able to go out and get the trapped fish.

The Kus-kus-sum site was home to Fields Sawmill from 1949 until 2004. After the sawmill shut down, Project Watershed undertook the restoration of the site in partnership with K’omoks First Nation and the City of Courtenay. The organization officially purchased the site from Interfor in 2020. Once restored, the Kus-kus-sum site will be repatriated back to K’omoks First Nation.

Pierzchalski is particularly excited about some of the plants they will be planting for the land reclamation. Sitka Spruce, for example, was logged extensively after colonization because it was often used for masts on sailing ships.

Another plant she is excited about is an at-risk species called Henderson’s checker-mallow, with pinky-purple blossoms.

“The ones that we planted so far in the site are doing really well. It’s really cool to see them thriving,” she said.

Project watershed is looking for a new site that has the same naturally occurring soil qualities as the Kus-kus-sum site. Once they find these new sites, they would like to restore them as well. If the project goes well, Pierzchalski said that it could be a good opportunity for a win-win, since the new site will also be restored.

“So our idea is to use the soils at Kus-kus-sum to actually carry out more estuarine restoration, rather than having them all disposed into a pit,” said Pierzchalski.

The soil must be safely relocated to a new receiving site, and both sites must be properly tested to make sure the soil aligns. They need to be very thorough with testing at the new site to show that they are not introducing soils that have an elevated level of contaminants that were not already occurring.

READ ALSO: Esquimalt Harbour among top federal contaminated sites to cost taxpayers billions

Doug Hillian, Courtenay city councillor and liaison for Project Watershed, said that this is just one of the many hurdles the community project has had to overcome.

“There’s been no shortage of obstacles,” he said. “It’s been a big project.”

Up until now, much of Project Watershed’s budget has been grant-based. The organization received a large amount of community donations for the original land acquisition of the property, as well as a large contribution from several grants from the government.

“That really got us to the finish line,” said Pierzchalski.

“But we’ve kind of split the budget into two components, there was the original land acquisition, and then there’s the restoration. And the restoration has been largely funded by big federal and provincial grants, as well as grants through other environmental NGOs.”

Though they are still receiving community donations, she said they have seen a dip in the community contributions within the last year. They are hoping to show the sense of urgency for these new costs, and let people know that their donations are needed.

Ideally, the organization would like to have the fundraising money in their pockets by the end of 2023. This means they will be able to continue soil testing throughout the winter.

In the summer, they will be able to take advantage of the low tides of June and July to carry out the remaining restoration work.

“But if donations continue to come in into the spring, they’ll be rolled into all those restoration works, and potentially the additional habitat restoration that we’re able to carry out with the excess soils,” said Pierzchalski.

Contributions can be made through the Project Watershed website.

Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse

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