Municipal Board sides with sand company
The Manitoba Municipal Board has ended a protracted zoning dispute between the RM of Springfield and Sio Silica Corp. by ordering the municipality to accommodate the mining company’s proposed $100-million sand processing plant in Vivian, east of Anola.
The 30-page order—which arrived March 8, more than two months after the Board’s Dec. 28, 2022 deadline—compels Springfield to alter its zoning bylaw to accommodate the plant and sign a development agreement with the Calgary-based Sio.
“The Board concludes that the Project itself is not without merit and the Proposed Zoning Amendment should not be rejected,” they wrote.
The Board also identified several “procedural anomalies” with the way Springfield treated the company during the land-use permit application process. Taken together, the Board said the anomalies amounted to unfair treatment.
In particular, the Board said the way the RM handled Sio’s application for a conditional use permit left it without confidence “that a fair process would result based on the facts.”
“The evidence unveiled a number of procedural anomalies that are a concern to the Board and question as to whether or not the Council had the information required to make an informed decision,” the Board concluded.
The RM’s beleaguered zoning bylaw, which will soon be replaced with an updated version that remains controversial with local residents, “has a number of deficiencies” that do not align with best practices in Manitoba, the Board said.
Had the zoning bylaw been updated sooner, the amendment the company sought may not have been required in the first place, the Board noted.
The Board said Sio’s processing plant, which will include a railway loop, is compatible with the land uses around it and aligns with provincial land-use policies.
The Board said the plant’s provincial licence contains enforceable conditions and requirements that will mitigate negative effects on surrounding properties.
The Board suggested the development agreement include the creation of a “community liaison committee” that could report any concerns or non-compliance issues to the province, which regulates mining and associated processing activities.
Several dozen local residents used the related three-day Municipal Board hearing last October to voice environmental concerns about Sio’s plans to extract a lucrative silica sand deposit located deep underground.
Critics of the project say it could ruin the aquifer that supplies the entire Southeast region with drinking water. The company maintains its novel borehole slurry extraction method is safe.
The Board’s order called the public’s concerns “heartfelt and sincere” but said the project’s “significant” environmental aspects fall outside the scope of its mandate.
“For the Board to consider matters outside of this scope would interfere with, and detract from, the other regulatory approval processes that have already occurred or are under consideration presently,” the Board wrote.
Three weeks of Manitoba Clean Environment Commission hearings, which were already underway by the time the Board’s order was released, “are where the aquifer water quality concerns will be addressed,” the Board added.
Company executives, lawyers, land-use planning consultants, and senior Springfield administrators also testified at last fall’s Municipal Board hearings, which were held in Anola.
It emerged at the hearing that Springfield mayor Tiffany Fell—who was defeated in an election that occurred midway through the hearings—told company executives their conditional use permit application would be denied by council before it went to a vote.
In its order, the Board wrote it was “surprised and skeptical as to the validity of this statement.”
“It would be highly irregular for a head of Council to state this before the Council has an opportunity to consider the Application,” they continued. “The Board was expecting Mayor Fell to provide evidence to confirm or deny this statement. Despite ample opportunity in the Hearing, Mayor Fell did not provide any evidence confirming or denying that this occurred.”
The Board said they were left with no choice but to consider the allegation true.
The Board also said it shouldn’t have taken Springfield nearly four months to process the company’s permit application. The delay “gives the impression that the Conditional Use Application was not being supported by the Municipality initially,” the board said.
The RM also never told Sio when council would consider the company’s application for a zoning bylaw amendment. The Board said that snub prevented the company from delivering a presentation that could have allayed concerns about the plant.
The RM also didn’t seek more information from the company while assessing the application, even when its own land-use consultants advised it to do just that.
“Had the Municipality engaged with the Applicant in a meaningful way there may have been an opportunity to amend the Proposed Zoning Amendment that may have addressed the concerns of the Municipality,” the Board wrote.
The Board’s order effectively removes the processing plant’s largest zoning obstacle. However, Sio must still obtain a variance for the plant and a conditional use permit for the associated extraction activities.
The latter must also be licensed by the provincial government. That won’t happen before mid-June, when the Clean Environment Commission’s recommendations will land on the desk of Kevin Klein, Manitoba’s minister of environment and climate, who will decide whether to issue Sio an extraction licence.
The Municipal Board was restricted to investigating the validity of Sio’s processing plant from a zoning and development perspective.
The Board said the plant will create jobs, generate several million dollars per year in tax revenue, drive infrastructure improvements that will benefit the surrounding community, and “assist with the transition away from fossil fuels.”