Thirty years ago, when there had been no active coal mining on Vancouver Island for fifteen years, residents of Campbell River were asked to consider a proposal to open a new mine in the Quinsam River watershed.
The mine, which by its daily operation would foul staggering amounts of water, was proposed for a site in a watershed containing salmon spawning grounds – the same grounds that developed and sustained the community’s claim to be the “Salmon Capital of the World.”
In 2011-12, Comox and Alberni Valley residents have been asked to consider a proposal to open a new coal mine in the Cowie Creek/T’sable River watershed. The mine, which would daily foul an as-yet-undisclosed volume of water, is proposed for a site above Fanny Bay, a mere three-to-four kilometres from the shores of Baynes Sound – some of Canada’s most productive shellfish waters and home to renowned Fanny Bay oysters.
Thirty years ago, the community of Campbell River was appalled. To even consider putting such sustainable activities as commercial fishing, sports fishing and tourism at risk seemed almost too preposterous to be taken seriously. After all, hadn’t senior governments already demonstrated a commitment to the protection of spawning salmon in the Quinsam River when they invested in a fish hatchery in its lower reaches in 1974? And hadn’t the fish hatchery contributed to the maintenance of a sustainable economic base for the community? And why would senior governments permit a short term resource extraction process to put their own investment at risk?
In 2011, the communities of the Comox Valley have shown themselves to be appalled. To even consider putting such sustainable activities as shellfish farming, tourism and perhaps even agriculture at risk seems almost too preposterous to be taken seriously. After all, haven’t senior governments already demonstrated a commitment to the health and prosperity of the shellfish industry in Baynes Sound when they energetically promoted its expansion throughout the 1990s and invested in a shellfish research station at Deep Bay in 2011? And why would senior governments permit a short term resource extraction process to put their own investments at risk?
Is it possible our senior governments and their bureaucracies deny gravity? While they are able to acknowledge the fact that coal mining consumes, or otherwise despoils, massive quantities of water, they seem incapable of grasping the consequences of that fact. Water, they need to be reminded, flows, trickles, seeps or otherwise makes its way, as gravity dictates, from higher to lower ground and, when it is contaminated, it threatens life forms in its path. This truth was at the heart of arguments advanced by virtually all the opponents of the Quinsam Mine in the early 1980s.
Colin Gabelmann, (NDP MLA for North Island) continually expressed his constituent’s unequivocal opposition in the Legislature and the central element was always the damage that could be wrought by the forces of gravity on waste water.
“The likelihood is,” he said on May 11, 1981, “that the economy would actually suffer a net loss if this particular project were to go ahead … It’s one of the few areas where we find a coalition between the commercial and sports fishing industries in this province. They’re very strongly opposed to this particular coal mine … I think the House can understand that what we have here is a … proposal … to develop a mine in a coal deposit high in sulphur content, in the middle of the Campbell River watershed right beside a lake emptying into a river which is the home of a fish hatchery. … In my judgment … that proposal is totally unacceptable.”
On the Government side of the Legislature, Jack Davis, former Federal Minister of Environment, former Fisheries Minister and former Provincial Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources let his opposition to the proposal be known in no uncertain terms. “Every one of us, as politicians,” he said, “knows that the Quinsam coal-mine will never be built. There are too many biological unknowns. There’s too large a public bias against it. Who needs a few million tonnes of high-sulphur coal a year anyway? We wouldn’t allow it to be burned here in British Columbia.”
And Colin Gabelmann, was on his feet again on July 5, 1982. “The feeling [in Campbell River],” he said, “is pretty clear. I think if people were polled, and if they had any say as to the decision about whether or not this mine were to be developed or to go ahead, clearly it would not go ahead, because the public is overwhelmingly opposed.”
To this, Stephen Rogers (Minister of Environment in the Social Credit government of the day) responded by acknowledging the depth and breadth of the opposition, but foreshadowed a government decision that was more than a year away with the words; “that’s not the only criterion we’re going to use.”
It simply rains too much
And indeed it wasn’t. Public opinion, it turned out, played almost no role at all in the decision making process which eventually involved a formal Public Inquiry held before three Commissioners appointed by the province in October and November of 1983. During twenty days of hearings, the Inquiry received lengthy, frequently complex technical submissions from thirty-six organizations. Twenty-nine of those opposed granting a permit to operate a coal mine in the Quinsam River watershed. Among them was the Mayor and Council of Campbell River, whose submission concluded: “Mining cannot be the basis for stable economic growth in this region. Apart from the threat it poses to our more valuable recreation and fisheries resources, mining can only be of temporary value to this region.”
Ruth Masters hit the nail on the head in her submission. “No matter how sincere the intentions of the applicant are,” she wrote, “there is no possible way that a massive surface disruption by enormous machinery such as is planned can happen without introduction into the watershed of silt and whatever chemicals are present in the mined materials. It is defying reality to suggest any form of containment; it simply rains too much.”
The Vancouver Island Resources Society concluded its lengthy analysis with the words: “In our view, to segregate acid mine wastes and render them environmentally safe over the long term will require a degree of operational control that no coal mine in this Province has yet demonstrated.” Nevertheless, much as the Minister of Environment had hinted in 1982, the Commission’s 290 page report dismissed the concerns of the local MLA, a former Minister of Environment for Canada, the Mayor and Council of Campbell River, the Regional District of Comox-Strathcona, and concluded: “The Quinsam River and its watershed are very sensitive to environmental damage. Notwithstanding this fact, the Commission has also found that if proper care and attention are paid to the environmental aspects of the construction and operation of this mine, by both the Company and the Government control agencies, the mine can be brought into existence and be operated without doing appreciable damage to the surrounding environment or the Quinsam River fishery”.
The ministry routinely ducks
In short, the Commission seemed confident that engineering and technology would thwart gravity and prevent “appreciable damage to the surrounding environment”. Proper and regular monitoring, sampling and analysis of downstream water quality, it was argued, would identify a problem before it became serious and permit corrective action to avert a catastrophic event. To this end, a monitoring program under the supervision of the BC Ministry of Environment was established and has continued to operate since the mine opened in 1987. To the surprise of few outside of the company and the ministry, annual reports routinely note the presence of a variety of elements at levels which exceed Canadian Water Quality Guidelines in samples taken downstream from the mine. The company routinely responds that the “exceedances” are minor. Community groups routinely respond with pleas for enforcement of the limits agreed upon. The ministry routinely ducks.
In 2006 the Campbell River Environmental Committee’s (CREC) frustration at the lack of enforcement boiled over in a public plea to the Provincial Ombudsman to intervene. CREC cited the most recent water quality monitoring report which listed 131 effluent violations and added the damning accusation that “the only attempt that we have seen by the government to bring the company into compliance with their permits is to revise the permits upwards so that the company does not exceed them.” Gradually, it became evident that the containment techniques of engineering and technology are only able to slow the progress of effluent as it makes its way from higher to lower ground and, in so doing, confirms what we were told many years ago by children’s author A. A. Milne: “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
Quinsam settles in
To many Campbell River residents, it seemed that once the project received official approval, governments and their bureaucracies accepted the presence of a coal mine in the community and simply went through the motions in their role as monitors. Rather than working to protect downstream water quality, they preferred to “work with the company” to permit the mine to continue to operate. Even the local NDP MLA, Claire Trevena, adopted a conciliatory tone as she questioned the Minister of Environment regarding the 131 effluent violations noted in the CREC study. In 2007, she concluded her congenial questioning in the Legislature with; “As I say, I know that Quinsam Coal themselves are also trying to make sure that there is minimal impact.” The mine, it seems, has found a home.
None of this is good news for opponents of the Raven Coal Project. It suggests that – other things being equal – local opposition, regardless of its depth, breadth and technical acumen is likely to be brushed aside by governments committed to short term goals and, if that should come to pass and permits are issued, those concerned about potential contamination of Baynes Sound would, with faint hope of success, have little choice but to badger, in perpetuity, the gravity deniers at the Ministry of Environment to enforce water quality standards in at least one, and perhaps even two or three, more watersheds on Vancouver Island.
Other things, however, are not equal. In the first decades of the twenty-first century we must all acknowledge a peril largely unknown to the folks of Campbell River thirty years ago – and that is that the burning of fossil fuels has nasty, and perhaps irreversible global consequences. While in the 1980s it was recognized that coal mining had the potential for negative environmental consequences, it was widely believed those would be purely local in nature. This conviction made it possible for governments to overlook local interests and argue that, while a coal mine “had to be in someone’s backyard” it was, in the end, for the benefit of society as a whole.
“A single garment of destiny”
For a new coal mine proposal in the twenty-first century, that argument is no longer plausible. It can no longer be denied that coal mining exacerbates global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide at every stage of its cycle; from exploration, to development and extraction, through transportation and finally to consumption. Our innocence is in the past. We know that ” ‘we are tied in a single garment of destiny’… and the issue of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has moved far beyond a political process. It has also moved far beyond being just a scientific issue. It is an ethical issue [and] one of the most urgent moral challenges in human history.” [Mardi Tindal, Moderator, United Church of Canada quoting Martin Luther King Jr.]
For this challenge there is no engineering solution – instead what is required is vision and courage and as we face this challenge we can’t avoid concluding that a new coal mine proposal can never again be regarded as merely a local issue.
Graham Brazier lives on Denman Island where he ponders BC history.
“A Review of the Quinsam Coal Monitoring Process,” Stanley Goodrich on behalf of the Campbell River Environmental Committee. December 2006.
Debates of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia (Hansard)
1) 3rd Session, 32nd Parliament (1981)
2) 4th Session, 32nd Parliament (1982)
3) 3rd Session, 38th Parliament (2007)
“Quinsam Coal’s Watershed History,” Quentin Dodd, Watershed Sentinel, January-February, 2010.
“Report to the Minister of Environment on the Public Enquiry into the Quinsam Coal Project at Campbell River, BC from October 12th to November 25th, 1983” n.d.
“Where is the Hope After Copenhagen? An Open Letter to all Canadians from the Moderator of the United Church of Canada,” Mardi Tindal, 2010: www.united-church.ca:80/communications/news/moderator/100117
Like this article? SUBSCRIBE!