Does proposed coal mine present a drinking water hazard?

University of Victory law clinic and Comox-based CoalWatch ask health authority to issue a Hazard Prevention Order

The Denman Raven collects signatures against the coal mine recently on Denman Island.

Opponents of the Raven Coal Mine proposal are backing a move this week asking the Vancouver Island Health Authority to issue a Hazard Prevention Order to address any potential  risk to drinking water.

The University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic has asked VIHA’s Drinking Water Officer to issue the order, and the request is supported by CoalWatch president John Snyder.

“Speaking as a private water well owner in Fanny Bay, I also support this request for a Hazard Prevention Order,” said Snyder. “The protection of our precious water supply should be paramount, and the fact that the UVic Environmental Law Clinic has made this extraordinary request is significant indeed.”

When asked for comment by The NEWS, VIHA’s communications department issued the following statement: “Our Medical Health Officer for North Island received the letter on Monday, and will now conduct a careful review and consideration of its request, which will take time.”

The terms of reference for submitting an application to the government for this project were finalized in June, 2012. In September, 2012, Raven project manager Don Birkshire told a Parksville audience the company would file its application in October of last year. The application has yet to be filed.

“The ball’s in their court,” Snyder told The NEWS in an interview Wednesday. “We are waiting for them to submit their application. We think we are taking proactive measures instead of reactive measures.”

According to a news release from the law clinic, the request was made pursuant to the Drinking Water Protection Act on behalf of CoalWatch Comox Valley Society. The release says the request is supported by two water suppliers below the proposed coal mine — Fanny Bay Waterworks and Ships Point Improvement District.

The UVic clinic says it submitted an expert opinion from a hydro-geologist and engineer that provides evidence that:

• the mine is likely to release heavy metals such as arsenic into streams either used directly for drinking water or connected to aquifers used as drinking water sources

• under the current environmental assessment process, the planned assessment and monitoring program for the mine is “very weak” and is likely to not mitigate the risk adequately.

The clinic submission provides information about the risks of Acid Mine Drainage, which it says destroyed the fishery in the Tsolum River, once created one of North America’s largest point sources of metal pollution at Brittania Creek, and caused the 1993 B.C. State of the Environment Report to state that Acid Mine Drainage was “one of the main sources of chemical threats to groundwater quality” in B.C.

The submission cites numerous examples of where mine-contaminated water has affected human health. It also notes that Comox Valley Regional District, Comox Town Council and Courtenay City Council have recently passed motions to oppose the further processing of the Raven project application  by government, until comprehensive aquifer mapping of the aquifers that could be affected by the proposed Raven Coal Mine Project is done.

No communities in the Parksville Qualicum Beach region have passed motions in regards to the project. The Parksville and District Chamber of Commerce voiced its support in October of last year.

In a letter to VIHA this week, officials with the Compliance Energy Corporation, owners of the proposed mine, said the request by the law clinic and CoalWatch  was “unnecessary.”

“The suggestion that there is a significant risk of an imminent drinking water health hazard in these circumstances is simply not true,” wrote Compliance president John Tapics. “Once an application  is filed (VIHA) and the general public will have an opportunity to review the adequacy of the information provided. Drinking water protection, and the subject of groundwater in general, will be addressed in detail in the application.”

Compliance community liaison Candy-Lea Chickite told The NEWS on Wednesday the company expects to submit its application in the first quarter of 2013. The proposed Raven project is located five kilometres west of the Buckley Bay ferry terminal. Berkshire said in September, 2012 the total underground area of the mine would be 3,100 hectares. He also said the project would create 350 jobs in the mine and port facility in Port Alberni.

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