On a hot July day in 1918, union activist and pacifist Ginger Goodwin was hunted down and shot dead in the backwoods of Vancouver Island. He opposed the unscrupulous labour practices of Robert Dunsmuir, the tycoon who mined a fortune in coal from the ground around Nanaimo and the Comox Valley. Coal is to the history of Vancouver Island what gold is to the Klondike: over the years, it’s been loved, loathed, and written and ranted about.
Now, with Asian demand for coal soaring, a Vancouver-based company is proposing to bring the Comox Valley’s coal history back to life by mining the same coal fields that made Dunsmuir rich. Compliance Energy Corp. hopes to dig more than two million tonnes of coal a year over the next 20 years from an underground operation near Baynes Sound, south of Courtenay. The company is drafting an application for dual environmental assessments through the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. However, the mine is being met with opposition from Baynes Sound shellfish growers, silver-maned retirees in Qualicum Beach, Denman Island farmers, and regular folks who promise to battle Compliance with the tenacity of a Ginger Goodwin.
Compliance owns 29,000 hectares of freehold coal and mineral rights—meaning it won’t have to pay royalties to the province—and has mineral rights to another 2,046 hectares of Crown land in the Comox coal basin. As a majority shareholder in the Comox Joint Venture, a partnership with Korea’s LG International and Japan’s ITOCHU Corporation, Compliance is focusing its current efforts on the proposed Raven Underground Coal Project, six kilometres west of Buckley Bay, close to the world-renowned oyster and clam leases of Baynes Sound.
The company says at least 50 percent of the deposit is of the high-value metallurgical variety used for making steel, as opposed to lower-grade thermal coal burned to generate electricity. There would be 200 hectares of surface facilities in the Cowie Creek watershed, and coal would be trucked to existing port facilities in Port Alberni for export to Asian markets. However, well before the province and feds have even started to examine the proposal in detail, grave concerns have been raised about the potential impact on drinking water for Baynes Sound residents and the health of shellfish and the marine environment of heavy metals and other toxic runoff associated with coal mining, the noisy rumble of ore trucks, coal dust blowing into people’s back yards, and the broader, ethical question around whether a province like B.C., which is talking a big game on climate change, should be approving the extraction of a fossil fuel that is the world’s most potent carbon-dioxide emitter.
Like a lot of major resource-extraction projects, on the surface Raven holds out the prospect of an intoxicating financial boost for yet another B.C. regional economy that has sagged with the crash of forestry and fishing. Compliance estimates that the mine would generate 200 direct jobs and another 300 to 500 spinoff jobs and would require an investment of between $100 million and $150 million.
The prospect of a mine near the shores of Baynes Sound came like a lump of coal in the stocking last October for the more than 300 citizens who crammed the Fanny Bay Community Hall hoping to find out more about the project. From this meeting emerged Coalwatch Comox Valley, an active group of environmentalists, businesspeople, and citizens who envision their seaside idyll being destroyed by big coal.
John Snyder chairs the Coalwatch group but is no dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist. For more than 40 years, he was a truck-driving, card-carrying Teamster in Alaska before retiring in 2007 with his Canadian wife to Fanny Bay. Snyder never expected to be trading punches with the mining industry in his retirement years. He said that the more than 300 members of Coalwatch bring a variety of beefs to the table, but the unifying concerns are water quality, impacts on Baynes Sound, and coal’s reputation as a dirty fuel more suited to the era of Charles Dickens than an age when world leaders claim to strive for cleaner sources of energy.
“I draw my water from a 14-foot well that last summer was six inches away from running dry. Basically, we’re just trying to make heads or tails of this thing,” Snyder said during an interview in a Courtenay café, adding that their shoestring group recently received a grant from West Coast Environmental Law that will enable them to hire a lawyer and build a case against well-paid corporate consultants working for Compliance. “In the 21st century, is this the right thing to be doing: to be opening up more coal mines?”
The Comox-based B.C. Shellfish Growers Association represents an industry that generates almost $40 million annually and employs 1,000 people. Baynes Sound is a productive inshore waterway sheltered by Denman and Vancouver islands and accounting for at least half of commercial shellfish harvesting in the province. The BCSGA sees the coal mine as a direct threat to a sustainable industry, and in a news release sent to local papers, it listed a host of specific concerns, centred around toxic runoff from Cowie Creek and subsequent lost shellfish production and fish habitat.
BCSGA executive director Roberta Stevenson certainly is not optimistic about the proposal: “We typically don’t oppose development, but we can’t see any good coming from a coal mine,” she said on the phone.
Gordy McLellan is managing director of Mac’s Oysters Ltd., a firm established by his grandfather, aquaculture pioneer Joseph McLellan, in 1947. Today the company employs 60 people, and McLellan said he hasn’t heard anything from Compliance that gives him confidence that the mine will be the light-footprint operation that it is being sold as.
“It’s not really the time that they’re here that concerns me; it’s when the mine is closed and the company is gone that is the problem. There is going to be runoff,” McLellan said over the phone.
Furthermore, he said contamination from the mine would compound other problems faced by oyster and clam farmers, such as fecal coliform originating from farms and failing septic systems around Baynes Sound.
If coal prices remain buoyant and the Raven deposit proves to be feasible, opponents of the project have reason to be worried that it could proceed. Early this year, Ottawa quietly revised the rules governing assessments of major projects such as mines, allowing Environment Canada to dilute reviews at the minister’s discretion. Critics say this effectively neuters the federal environmental-review process. In B.C., with nine coal mines in operation, six awaiting environmental-assessment approval, and another five projects in early stages of development, it seems that the provincial government rarely sees a coal-mine proposal that it doesn’t like. That makes coal the largest fossil-fuel export in a province that has been positioned by Premier Gordon Campbell as Canada’s climate-change warrior.
In 2008, B.C. exported almost 27 million tonnes of coal, worth $5 billion, 70 percent of which was bound for Asian markets. According to Will Horter, executive director of the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative, this mother lode of coal, whether burned or used for steel-making, translates into more than 65 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually.
Perhaps more compelling on a local scale for many people than the global-warming implications of coal is the threat of toxic runoff. Coal mining, like its hard-rock and precious-metal counterparts, poses challenging environmental problems during and well beyond the life span of the mine in the form of acid-rock drainage. Waste rock and mine tailings often contain acid-generating sulphates that, when exposed to the air, react with oxygen, producing sulphuric acid that can leach into the surrounding environment.
A common way to store mine wastes is by submerging them in water, assuming the reservoir is stable and secure. However, that’s where problems begin. If they’re built without a thorough understanding of local hydrology and geology, seepage and failure of waste-impoundment reservoirs can lead to acidification of adjacent creeks and rivers, necessitating long-term, expensive remediation efforts. Coal mines can also unleash toxic elements, such as arsenic, a poisonous, naturally occurring metallic element frequently associated with coal-mining activities that’s harmful to humans and other organisms.
That’s why John Tapics, CEO of Compliance Energy, has been spending a lot of time on speaking tours, wooing civic officials and courting community activists, hoping to put a positive spin on a project that is so far getting a rough ride in the court of public opinion.
“We’re committed to doing a socially and environmentally responsible project,” Tapics said over the phone from his Vancouver office, adding that the Raven Underground Coal Project is still in the early feasibility-study stages of development.
Compliance is collecting water samples at several sites on Cowie and Cougar Smith creeks and is compiling water data from 200 rock-test drill holes to identify the extent of aquifers. Tapics said he believes they can mine the coal seams without disturbing and contaminating the aquifers, and he said early indications from rock samples sent away to a lab for mineralogical testing suggest low potential for both acid-rock drainage and arsenic contamination. Rather than submerging rock waste in reservoirs, Compliance plans to divert runoff and water away from storage pits to prevent seepage into the surrounding watershed, which has significant biodiversity value.
According to the province’s own databank, Cowie Creek and its tributary, Cougar Smith Creek, host coho, pink, and chum salmon as well as cutthroat, rainbow, and steelhead trout. Tapics is forthright in acknowledging that Cowie Creek will be damaged by mine operations, but he said any lost habitat will be replaced with manufactured fish habitat per Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s no-net-loss policy. As with many underground coal mines, a highly combustible cocktail of methane and nitrogen is trapped within the Raven deposit’s coal seams, and the company is still working on a plan to ventilate the gas from mine shafts. The risk to miners from trapped pockets of methane was brought sharply into focus on April 5 this year when an underground blast killed 29 coal miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, in the United States’ worst mine disaster in 40 years.
Tapics said he is confident environmental and human health concerns will be addressed through the environmental-review process that he said will hold the company to a high performance standard.
“We will have to post a reclamation bond, and that amount will be determined by the regulatory bodies,” Tapics said.
So far, the Raven project is theoretical. Assuming Compliance eventually submits a complete application to the provincial assessment authorities, the province is mandated to reach a decision on whether or not to issue an Environmental Assessment Certificate (EAC) within 180 days, during which time there are two public-comment periods.
“The EAO [Environmental Assessment Office] relies on technical advice from working-group members [including agencies such as the Ministry of Environment] during the EA for proposed projects to help assess potential effects,” said Suntanu Dalal, a spokesperson for the province’s Ministry of Environment, from Victoria. “Concerns on potential impacts to drinking water and the shellfish industry will be considered during the EA.”
Dalal said any substantive changes to the mine plan in the future—for example, moving into open-pit mining—would first require an amendment to the EAC following any additional impact studies deemed necessary.
Despite assurances from the province and Compliance, there are plenty of examples of mines that have slipped through the cracks, with lasting ecological ramifications. The nearby notorious Mt. Washington copper mine operated for four years in the 1960s before closing, leaving behind a 40-year legacy of acid-rock drainage in the Tsolum River and a multimillion-dollar, taxpayer-funded cleanup effort still under way. In the coal-mining country of the East Kootenays, researchers have found a possible link between upstream coal mines and elevated levels of selenium—a nonmetallic element that’s toxic above certain levels to freshwater organisms—in Michelle Creek and Line Creek, both tributaries of the Elk River and downstream of coal mines.
Although Teck Coal Ltd., which operates five coal mines in the Elk Valley, is trying to find ways to reduce selenium levels in Line Creek, the province is poised to approve expansion of the company’s Line Creek operation that would mean the extraction of another 52 million tonnes of coal over 20 years before the problem has been solved. Casey Brennan, of the Kimberley-based conservation group Wildsight, called this putting the cart before the proverbial horse at the potential expense of the environment.
Quinsam Coal Corporation, a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Hillsborough Resources Ltd., employs roughly 50 people at an underground operation near Campbell River and generates annual sales in the $20-million-to-$50-million range, yet toxic runoff from this 20-year-old mine is still poorly understood. A 2003 Ministry of Environment analysis of sediments in nearby Long Lake identified a high level of arsenic, at 225 parts per million, well above the threshold of 5.6 ppm considered safe by the province. Studies conducted over the past several years by the Canadian Water Network, headed by University of British Columbia professor emeritus and chemist William Cullen, found arsenic readings as high as 628 ppm. There are also abnormally high levels of sulphates in Long Lake, an indication of potential acid-rock drainage. These red flags haven’t stopped the province from considering an application from Hillsborough for an expansion of its mining operations.
Gary Gould, vice president of Hillsborough, says arsenic occurs naturally in surrounding water bodies but that the company is taking the Canadian Water Network’s data seriously.
“We have embarked on a fairly extensive study of the lake sediments to try to replicate Dr. Cullen’s findings,” Gould said from his Vancouver office. “As for the sulphates, it does appear that mining activities are having an impact and we’re working at capping some old open-pit mine workings to prevent oxidization.”
The Quinsam Mine is located in the watershed of the Quinsam River, upstream from a Fisheries and Oceans Canada hatchery where five species of salmon are reared and released into the river every year. Although the ability of the river to support fish doesn’t appear to have been compromised yet, Stan Goodrich, a long-time mine watchdog and member of Campbell River’s Greenways Land Trust, said mine expansion should be halted until government scientists and the mine operators get a handle on the source of arsenic and sulphates.
“The major concern is the large amount of arsenic in the sediment of Long Lake and the sulphates. If this stuff gets moving in the water, I’m afraid we could lose the [Quinsam] river overnight,” Goodrich said. “If this were to occur long after the mine closes, then we’ve got another expensive cleanup effort on our hands.”
And that’s exactly what the people of Baynes Sound don’t want: to be left holding the bag after the Raven underground coal mine has come and gone. When Gordy McLellan’s grandfather was fine-tuning his shellfish-culturing techniques 60 years ago, the heady days of Dunsmuir’s Comox Valley coal-mining boom were winding down and Ginger Goodwin had already attained folk-hero status. Now that coalmining could ramp up again, this time even closer to the shores of Baynes Sound, McLellan and some of his neighbours, like Snyder from Coalwatch Comox Valley, want assurances that a hunger for dirty fossil fuels won’t damage a six-decade tradition of shellfish farming and open a Pandora’s box of environmental issues.