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Proposed coal mine over Baynes Sound 'isn't an easy ask,' admits Comox Valley MLA
A recent 30-day public comment period indicates widespread opposition to the proposed Raven underground coal mine in Baynes Sound.
According to CoalWatch Comox Valley, more than 95 per cent of 2,300-plus respondents "expressed deep concern or outright opposition to the proposal."
CoalWatch is calling on elected officials, both federal and provincial, to advocate for an independent expert review panel with full public hearings.
The Canada Environmental Assessment Agency, however, has said the project does not warrant referral to a panel review.
Though only at the pre-assessment phase, Comox Valley MLA and Agriculture Minister Don McRae is not surprised at the level of discussion the proposal has generated, considering the higher-than-average voting rate and level of environmental consciousness among his constituents.
"I would expect nothing less from the Comox Valley," McRae said.
Project proponent Compliance Coal Corporation expects the mine would yield hundreds of jobs, some paying six-figure salaries.
While most submissions have been negative, McRae said some people are keen to see investment in jobs in B.C.
"But the reality is it needs to be balanced, and that's what the environmental process is doing," said McRae, noting the Prosperity Mine proposal in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region was a 17-year process.
"And even then it didn't go forward. It's not a process that's designed to be fast, it's designed to be comprehensive and deal with the issues as they arise. I'm thankful that people are raising the issues."
In December, a group of protesters handed McRae a stocking full of coal at his Courtenay office. He has since relayed theirs and other concerns to Environment Minister Terry Lake, who was not available for comment this week.
"His (Lake) sense was that an independent panel review would be at a test lower than the environmental assessment review would be. So the bar for the environmental assessment is designed to be higher than that," McRae explained.
Official Opposition Environment Critic Rob Fleming has criticized McRae and Lake for not ensuring the mine would receive the "highest scrutiny possible." In a statement, the Victoria–Swan Lake MLA questions McRae's assurance about protecting the aquaculture industry "with the highest environmental standards possible."
McRae, who suggests Fleming is "stirring a political pot," said B.C. has some of the highest environmental standards in North America. He also suggests Fleming's complaint about the need for a joint panel review needs to be raised with his federal colleagues in Ottawa.
"Don't get mad at us for the feds not deciding that it's warranted," McRae said. "We're proud of the environmental assessment process in British Columbia. It is strict, and you don't see a lot of mines opening up in this province for that very reason. It's not meant to be an easy test."
To bring a mine to the east coast of the Island next to the ocean and the richest shellfish beds in B.C. "isn't an easy ask by the company," McRae added.
"I'm sure the company didn't expect the response to be in huge support, nor to be an easy process."
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The Raven coal project is in the early stage of a "co-operative federal-provincial environmental assessment process," the B.C. Environment Ministry says in a statement.
"The Environmental Assessment Office is committed to conducting a rigorous assessment, informed by objective scientific analysis, to evaluate the potential environmental, social, economic, health and heritage effects of the proposed project."
The intention of the public comment period on the draft Application Information Requirements/Environmental Impact Statement Guidelines was to solicit comment on studies to be conducted and information to be provided by the proponent in its application for a provincial Environmental Assessment Certificate.
The EAO considers comments within the scope of the assessment, whether they are raised once or many times. The large number of comments is not unprecedented, the ministry added, referring to the Jumbo Glacier Resort Project near Invermere.
The EAO requested comments pertaining to the draft AIR/EIS Guidelines document, rather than 'votes' for or against the project. It notes, however, the majority of comments were not in favour of the proposal.
"The EAO is responsible for ensuring a fair and transparent process that assesses the potential impacts of the proposed project. Only after the assessment is complete will the EAO submit a report to the Minister of Environment and Minister of Energy and Mines for a decision of whether to issue a provincial Environmental Assessment Certificate."
For more information about the public comment period, see the Frequently Asked Questions document at http://a100.gov.bc.ca/appsdata/epic/documents/p351/1304968600071_27ef5f2eb5a1d2b01d233bc9a1972f8c2e73ba0a9b591791bf251b6685869b81.pdf.