A Calgary-based company that wants to mine and process silica sand in the RM of Springfield has undergone a makeover ahead of a regulatory hearing that could influence the direction of the multi-year, multimillion-dollar project.
CanWhite Sands Corp. announced last week that it has changed its name to Sio Silica Corp.
The change was made "to better align our product brand to domestic and global markets," Brent Bullen, chief operating officer, said in a release.
"Really, it’s to align the brand of the product to the marketspace, because our…discussions are all centred around the high-purity applications of the sand," Bullen said this week in a phone interview.
Bullen said the company "refocused" in 2019 when it confirmed the sand was pure enough to use in greener, more lucrative, applications. The company is already in talks with electronics and "high-end industrial" companies, he added.
Silica is used in the production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, industrial coatings, and high-grade glass and electronics. Sio says its processed silica will exceed 99.9 percent purity.
Bullen said the rebranding entails no changes to the company’s operations or corporate structure.
In a release, Sio said it wants to participate in "the global movement towards decarbonization" through green technology, from electric vehicles to solar and wind energy.
Global supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19 are prompting a resurgence in homegrown manufacturing, to prevent disruptions from hampering long-term environmental targets, the company added.
Critic pans rebrand
On its new website, Sio calls itself "the world’s most environmentally friendly emerging producer of high purity silica."
"This is greenwashing," Janine Gibson, secretary of Our Line in the Sand, said this week in a phone interview after perusing the new website, which includes a page on "Sustainability" that lists the company’s environmental and social priorities alongside stock images of a child planting a seedling and a family walking in a forest.
"The website doesn’t provide any evidence for any of their claims, which actually is much like their proposals," Gibson continued. "It’s a lot of glitz and not a lot of substance."
Gibson said the company is trying to shed bad publicity. Bullen disagreed.
"When they come out and say we’re greenwashing, they’re just making claims that’ll stick on social media to create tension and anxiety."
Company secures licence
The rebrand comes two weeks after the company was granted a licence under the Environment Act to construct and operate a processing facility on private land in Vivian, east of Anola. The company applied for the licence 17 months earlier.
The plant will be capable of processing up to 1.3 million tonnes of silica sand per year. But before it can be built, Sio must obtain a conditional use permit from the RM of Springfield. Bullen said the company has yet to apply for the permit.
A second licence under the Environment Act, which would allow the company to extract the sand from deep underground, hinges on the outcome of a Clean Environment Commission hearing expected to take place in the next two months.
"The issuance of this (processing) licence does not imply nor infer any future approval of the proposed CanWhite Sands silica sand extraction project," the province cautioned in a Dec. 16 letter to Feisal Somji, CEO of Sio.
Gibson said the province effectively gave Sio a "golden ticket" by licensing the processing plant before the CEC could scrutinize the mining method.
Bullen said the two licence applications are separate and "operate in an independent framework."
The CEC has yet to announce the date and location of its hearing.
Minister offers assurances
Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard was unavailable this week for an interview. In response to questions about the structure of the upcoming CEC hearing, her spokesperson provided a brief written statement.
"The minister has sent the terms of reference, inclusive of a full public hearing, to the Clean Environment Commission (CEC). The CEC has confirmed it is planning on undertaking a full hearing that will allow the proponent, participants and presenters to participate, consistent with the CEC’s Process Guidelines Respecting Public Hearings," the statement read in full.
"I’m certainly glad to hear that," Gibson said.
In November, a provincial spokesperson confirmed participant funding wouldn’t be made available to offset the cost of evidence gathering. The spokesperson also said the CEC would carry out a technical assessment and engage a consultant to help it assess some aspects of the proposal.
That led critics to worry that the promised hearing would be a mere presentation. Gibson said Guillemard’s new statement is "a step in the right direction."
Gibson said Our Line in the Sand is raising funds to bring in independent experts from outside Manitoba to speak at the hearing.
Open houses cancelled
Meanwhile, Sio has cancelled two open house meetings at the Anola Community Club on Saturday, Jan. 15 and Monday, Jan. 17, owing to rising COVID-19 infection rates in Manitoba.
The meetings had been billed as a chance for the public to talk with company representatives and experts in engineering and hydrogeology.