District of Elkford councillor Steve Fairbairn.

District of Elkford councillor Steve Fairbairn.

Elkford residents concerned about Bingay

Kootenay-East MLA Tom Shypitka met with approximately 100 locals in Elkford at a meeting which was organized on social media as a way for locals to share their concerns about the proposed Bingay mine. Shypitka also serves as the critic for Energy and Mines and Petroleum Resources. The responses he heard during the two-hour session were resoundingly negative.

Centermount Coal Ltd. officials were not in attendance at the meeting. However, a representative of the company arrived just after the meeting, which was scheduled from 6-9 p.m., had adjured shortly after 8 p.m.

Some, but not all of the points raised by residents included water safety, negative impact on wildlife, air pollution, little to no economic benefits for Elkford, the destruction of Blue Lake, the loss of tourism through the disruption of the Trans Canada Trail, few to no local job opportunities, flaws in the proposal leading to mistrust in the company, a lack of enthusiasm by the company in proposed water protection methods, and the feeling by locals that they’re not being heard.

A few days after the meeting, Centermount wrote a response to address some concerns.

Many, including District of Elkford councillors, admitted that without mining, the valley would be struggling. However, they also believe that in its current state, the Bingay Mine proposal does not benefit Elkford or the surrounding area in any way. It was said during the meeting that in the mining industry, it’s important where you do it, how you do it and why you do it.

While the meeting was underway, a petition was passed around the room opposing the Bingay Mine. It received 72 signatures.

Shypitka admitted that even though his job serves primarily to promote safe and responsible mining, every proposal is treated as a one-off, and must be examined individually. He made sure to say that he is not a judge and jury in this matter, he is simply there to hear what people have to say and bring their message to Victoria.

The Bingay Main Coal Project is proposed to be built approximately 21km north of Elkford, where the company, Centermount Coal Ltd, would extract one million clean tonnes of metallurgical coal annually to be shipped out to the Lower Mainland by rail. The estimated life span of this mine is 12 years.

Centermount would be filling in Blue Lake, a popular recreation spot, as a result of the project.

The Bingay Main Coal Project is wholly owned by Centermount Coal Ltd, a private Canadian company based in Vancouver whose major shareholder is Centerpoint Resources. Centerpoint Resources Inc. holds 55 per cent of the equity shares, with the balance of 45 per cent held by investors based in China.

Centermount Coal and Centrepoint Resources currently hold five coal licenses totalling 1800 hectares, near the confluence of Bingay Creek and the Elk River. Coal within the license area is concentrated within Bingay Hill, which rises 15 metres above the surrounding terraces.

At least 32 coal beds are present, ranging in thickness from 0.3 to 16.2 metres. Of these coal seams, 24 are at least one metre thick. The cumulative thickness reaches a maximum thickness of 62.6 metres, with an overall coal bearing rock strata thickness of 460 metres. Before operation begins, a 27 km rail line will need to be constructed, a one km power line, and a rail load out facility. The rail line will be located on Crown land, on the east side of the Elk River. Coal will be processed on-site, on the west side of the Elk River. An overland conveyor will span across the Elk River and associated flood plains, connecting the plant site on the west side of the river to the rail system on the east side.

In the Bingay Main Coal Project description document released by Centermount Coal Ltd., in 2012, the company stated that the Bingay Main and Bingay B properties are transected by several watercourses including the Elk River, and several tributaries draining east into the Elk River. These include, from south to north: Lowe Creek Bingay Creek, No Name Creek, Hornickel Creek, No Name Creek 2, and Forsyth Creek. In addition to these features there are a number of wetlands within the project area. The proposed railway line will cross over a number of streams draining west into the Elk River.

On page 20 of this report, a map of the Bingay mine site shows the proposed pit placed less than 40 yards away from Bingay Creek at the closest point. The report further states that road crossings will be necessary over Bingay Creek and Hornickel Creek.

“The mine plan was developed with these surface water features in mind to minimize impacts to the aquatic environment,” states the document.

The Elk River runs 220 kilometres southwest through the Elk Valley, and into the United States. Many who spoke up emphasized how devastating an incident would be if it occurred around Bingay mine, as it is located near the top of this body of water.

District of Elkford councillor Steve Fairbairn started the meeting off with strong statements opposing the mine. His position on the matter, is “firmly and solidly against it.”

Centermount has proposed that 300 jobs will be created as a result of this mine. Fairbairn said that during meetings with the District of Elkford, Centermount has never specified more than 110 jobs. He also said that every time Centermount’s representatives have presented to council, the story has changed.

For a long time, the Bingay Mine proposal contained plans for a strictly open-pit mine, followed by unspecified ‘underground workings’. He says the last time Centermount spoke to council, the ‘underground workings’ were off the table. However Fairbairn has since spoken with locals who say they’ve read documents stating that there is still a proposal for underground mining.

He also pointed out that Teck Coal, whom he considers a world-class leader in research of environmental protection, still struggles with preventing selenium leaks. He pointed out that Teck is a Canadian company with over 60 years in the valley, doing everything they can to take care of the land they disturb.

“They’re not going anywhere,” Fairbairn said. “This company’s mine plan, Centermount coal, is a foreign-owned company that has no economic ties to Canada other than this mine plan.

“If they close it up after 12 years… once they pack it up and leave, they’re gone,” he added. “No matter how large a pond they leave in a bank somewhere to deal with, environmental remediation, if our water source, if our drinking water is altered or damaged or contaminated, that’s it, we’re done. We’re not done for 15 or 20 years, we’re done forever. As is the entire Elk Valley, and is the Koocanusa, and potentially down in the states.”

“That part terrifies me.”

Fairbairn reminded locals of the effects that their quads and snowmobiles have on wildlife in the high country in the winter, as previously discussed in other meetings.

“Well just imagine a mine blasting up there, 24 hours a day, for 12 years,” he said.

Fairbairn added later that the Centermount development is outside of the District of Elkford boundaries, and that they won’t receive any tax money from the mine.

Many locals weighed in on the issue. The first to speak exposed what he says is a flaw in Centermount’s proposal, speaking about the cost of environmental protection and how it relates to Centermount’s operation proposal. With the current price of coal ranging between $100 and $150 per metric tonne, he estimated that with their proposed production rate and lifespan, the Bingay Mine will make approximately $113M per year, or $1.3B in total sales, not including cost of operating and water management.

“I think Teck has put about a billion aside, or earmarked for water treatment. I think everyone can agree it’s not working, yet,” he said, adding that he believes the Bingay mine will not generate enough funds to properly operate, protect the ecosystems, and fund the high paying jobs they promise.

He also pointed out that Forsyth Creek, upriver from Bingay Creek, is one of the last true, wild spawning grounds of Cutthroat Trout in the area. He considers this body of water as one of the main reasons the Elk Valley’s fly-fishing is considered the best in the world.

“So if we have a mine that will potentially block those fish from spawning, forget the selenium, it won’t kill any fish because there won’t be any fish left,” he said.

With the subject of waterways in mind, another local spoke up, stating that the mines around the area have already caused much pollution, despite pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into environmental preservation.

“The technology doesn’t exist, and all the good intentions in the world aren’t going to fix it once the problem has arisen,” he said.

“The Elk River is rated as one of the best fishing areas on the planet,” he continued. “So the risk of destroying that is not very favourable as far as I’m concerned.”

A planning engineer, who chose to withhold his name, addressed some other technical issues he perceived in Centermount’s proposal. To him, the area in which Bingay mine is set to go in, is 30 to 50 per cent too small. There is no space for storage. The plant is also far too small. The rail line itself poses an unrealistic cost of extraction which he says this mine couldn’t handle.

He believes that the Bingay Mine could serve as an attempt for Centermount to get some value on an asset by licensing it, getting all the required permits, then attempting to either sell it to Teck or take it public.

“That’s where they stand to make the most money,” he said.

A third-generation miner spoke next. At the open-house meeting which was held on November 15, 2017, he recalls talking to the Bingay Mine project manager who, when asked about isotope testing in the water, told the local to talk to Council about this matter as it was ‘None of their concern’. The local believes this isn’t a sign of a good business partner.

Another local stood up to voice her opinion on the matter. She commented on the footprint the company would leave, simply creating access to the mine site. She said they would destroy an ecosystem. She also recalled that in the last meeting, a representative of Centermount told her Blue Lake, a popular recreational area for many Elkford residents was just a ‘mud puddle’.

“It’s got a lot of life in there,” she said, adding that the lake has been used by her family for the last three generations.

Another concern was housing. With the proposed 7-on-7-off shifts at Bingay Mine, workers there will likely not choose to purchase homes locally. Instead, they may choose to camp. With this in mind, locals say they doubt they’ll even buy groceries locally.

A resident who has lived in the area for 36 years, brought up a different concern entirely.

“How much of our say, really gets a say in whether it goes in?” she asked. “From my experience, watching things go in around the country, it’s dollars and politics that gets it in. And little people don’t get a big say.”

“People that have never lived here, or have never lived in a peaceful, serene place, will never get what it’s like to live here in this beautiful place,” she added. “That’s why people live here. So we can drive up the valley and show our kids what it’s like to be somewhere where you’re not breathing in smog all the time. That’s how we want our place to stay.”

Shypitka responded by saying that the Elkford resident’s voices do matter, and that there was a reason he came to the meeting that day.

“I understand, 100 per cent. There’s a reason why people live here. It’s a way of life,” he said, “And a lot of people don’t understand that. And that’s why I have to bring that understanding to Victoria.”

Anyone wishing to do so can email comments or concerns to Tom Shypitka, at Tom.Shypitka.mla@leg.bc.ca.

This story is part one of multi-part series about the Bingay Mine proposal. More to follow next week.

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Blue Lake.  Photo courtesy of Joy Segovia

Blue Lake. Photo courtesy of Joy Segovia

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