It’s been a year of ups and downs in British Columbia, but Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett is optimistic moving into a new year.
Bennett, the longtime regional MLA who has served East Kootenay constituents since 2002, notes that B.C. is the only in Canada that has a balanced budget. However, he is also cognizant that some industries, such as mining, is going through some tough times with low commodity prices worldwide.
“I would probably say the drop in commodity prices, the drop in metallurgical coal and the drop in the price of metals, especially copper, as we get to the end of 2015, those low commodity prices are putting the whole industry in jeopardy, especially in the Elk Valley,” Bennett said.
Serving as Minister of Energy and Mines since 2013, Bennett adds that the government is in the early stages of working on an initiative to help mining companies in B.C. reduce operating costs.
“Probably the most important thing I’m working on right now is an initiative that would help mining companies in the province reduce their operating costs, so that they can remain in business and keep employing the people that they employ all across the province,” he said.
Also on the mining front, Bennett brought up the recent report on the Mount Polley disaster released by the Chief Inspector of Mines (CIM) last week. The report identified a slew of recommendations to increase mine safety and prevent the failure of any tailing storage facilities in the future.
“I’m going to be making pretty significant changes to the regulations that govern mining in the province because of these two reports, so very significant development for the mining industry,” said Bennett.
The Mount Polley disaster occurred in August 2014 when a dam failed at a tailings storage facility at a mine site in the Cariboo region. Millions of cubic metres of of mine waste contaminated nearby waterways, flowing into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake.
A few key recommendations include having a designated mine dam safety inspector and a designated individual to oversee the mine’s water balance and water management plan; independent technical review boards will be required for all mines that have tailings pond storage facilities, establishing a dedicated investigation, compliance and enforcement team within the ministry.
On the energy front, Bennett also brought up the Site C dam project that has begun in the Peace River region in northwest B.C. The dam, a $9 billion public-sector project, is expected to provide 1,100 megawatts of capacity and roughly 5,100 gigawatt hours of electricity per year, which is estimated to power 450,000 homes annually.
“At this time in Canada with the economy struggling across the country, only one province balancing it’s budget—that’s us—this large, public-sector project is going to be very important to our economy, so it looks really good so far,” Bennett said, adding that the project will create approximately 10,000 jobs.
“Because of the slowdown in the oil patch in Alberta, there’s equipment available, construction companies are looking for jobs, so I think we’re going to be able to keep the price under control for Site C, which is obviously something we want to do.”
Closer to home, Bennett has been happy to see movement on land-use issues out at Koocanusa over the year, which he says is a valuable recreational resource. In conjunction with the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) and the Regional District of East Kootenay (RDEK), the province had two Natural Resource Officers patrolling the area over the summer to help with enforcement and education.
Over the summer months, there are issues with garbage, huge parties and damage from off-road vehicles that don’t stay on proper trails. Starting in January, in conjunction with the RDEK, the Ktunaxa and the provincial government, there will be public meetings to gather feedback from what local homeowners and business owners want to see for the future.
“The reason for getting this started is I’ve always thought that we don’t want to ruin something that is so precious and valuable to the people who live here,” said Bennett.
“It’s a great recreational resource. It has relatively warm water, sandy beaches, it’s wonderful to ski, swim, fish, camp—all of those things, but there are some excesses down there.
“…The idea is not to over-regulate or take the fun out of it, I don’t want to do that; I want to leave people to enjoy that area, you’re still going to be able to camp on Crown land as per usual, but there has to be management there to make sure we keep it clean.”
Heading into 2016 on the health care side of things, Bennett is also pushing for a permanent Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) capabilities at the East Kootenay Regional Hospital. Additionally, he will also be looking to work with the Interior Health Authority to beef up community heath initiatives for home support services for seniors who need health care so that they can remain in their homes for as long as possible.
By Trevor CrawleyCranbrook Daily Townsman