Sand-mine opponents speak out against environmental hearing
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The environmental hearing into an Alberta company’s silica sand project in Manitoba has been called the “poster child” for problems with the province’s vetting of such projects.
“It’s really raising some fundamental issues about how we do environmental assessment and protect the environment,” said Public Interest Law Centre lawyer Byron Williams, who represents opponents of the project.
He presented closing arguments Wednesday on behalf of his clients — the Manitoba Eco-Network and the residents’ group Our Line in the Sand — at the Clean Environment Commission hearing in Beausejour.
“This is the first Clean Environment Commission hearing we’ve had a long time,” Williams said. “It’s really important because it’s a poster child for the problems with environmental assessment in Manitoba.”
Sio Silica Corp. of Calgary wants to drill wells to extract silica sand from Vivian, southeast of Winnipeg, and build a processing facility that would handle 1.3 million tonnes annually for the next 24 years.
Silica sand is used in the fracking (hydraulic fracturing) process to extract oil or gas to make cellphone screens, electronics, fibre optics and solar panels.
Sand mixed with groundwater would be piped up. The water would be separated from the sand, treated with an ultraviolet light and allowed to flow back into its formation.
The company insists it’s a clean, safe project that will create jobs. Its timely approval could attract further economic development, including the largest solar panel factory in North America, which a German company has said it’s considering, Sio Silica Corp. says.
The president and CEO of Sio Silica, Feisal Somji, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Opponents accuse the company of failing to conduct due diligence.
About 50 people in attendance Wednesday heard that the proposed extraction project will result in the collapse of the shale “aquitard” that protects the aquifer by preventing underground bodies of water from interconnecting.
Williams said a collapse would affect the region’s ability to manage the water supply and make it difficult to ensure its sustainability and quality in the long term.
“This is the most important source of water for the whole southeast region of Manitoba,” Williams said.
The population, and its and water needs, are growing. Municipal leaders who’ve attended the hearing have expressed concern the proposal will be approved without more evidence and protections for the groundwater supply.
“There have been really important questions that haven’t been asked about how this project fits with other projects,” Williams said. “It’s an essential part of good environmental analysis to look at the effect of this project in combination with other projects and what’s going on in the region with growth,” he said.
“The proponent didn’t do cumulative effects assessment; the proponent didn’t look at regional groundwater plans, in our view.”
The commission has 90 days to provide a report to Environment and Climate Minister Kevin Klein on the potential environmental and health risks of the project.
Klein, a rookie minister, said March 1 he has faith in the experts in his department “who will make the right decisions,” and faith in the process, and that it needs to play out.
If either side disagrees with the decision, it can appeal to the provincial cabinet, said Williams.
The NDP critic on the file, Mark Wasyliw, said the opposition’s concern about the project is that “the government can’t do basic things anymore.”
“Why can’t this government come out and say that ‘No matter what the recommendations of the Clean Environment Commission will be, we will guarantee the people of southeastern Manitoba that they will have a clean and safe water supply’?”
— With file from Julia-Simone Rutgers
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.