Kinew nixes environmental license for controversial silica sand mining project

The province announced a proposed silica sand mine in a southeastern Manitoba municipality will not be allowed to go forward, with the premier saying the environmental concerns outweigh ‘uncertain’ economic benefits.

At a news conference in Anola, Man., Premier Wab Kinew announced his government has decided not to issue an environmental license for the Vivian sand extraction project proposed in the Rural Municipality of Springfield by Alberta-based Sio Silica.

“The technology that Sio is proposing to use is a new method of extraction. With this unproven approach, we cannot guarantee the safety of drinking water for future generations in this part of Manitoba,” Kinew said.

“For these reasons, we are saying no to Sio and refusing the license today.”

Sio Silica proposed setting up a silica sand mining operation in an area near Vivian, Man. that would extract up to 1.36 million tonnes of silica sand per year by drilling more than 1,000 wells in the area.

The province’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Tracy Schmidt said the decision to deny the license was made after months of careful review of information from experts, including a report done by the Clean Environment Commission (CEC), as well as consultations with impacted communities and First Nations.

The CEC report identified several serious environmental concerns about the project, which would have extracted sand through aquifers.

“No one knows what the long-term effects of this proposal would be and frankly, the worst-case scenarios would be absolutely devastating, as nearly 100,000 Manitobans source their drinking water from these aquifers,” Minister Schmidt said at the news conference.

The CEC also heard from hundreds of Manitobans voicing their opposition to the project, local leaders, scientists, and environmental advocacy groups, the minister said.

CTV News has reached out to Sio Silica for comment, and is waiting to hear back.

‘I just am so relieved’

Southeast Manitoba resident Janine Gibson, whose well feeds into one of the affected aquifers, had tears in her eyes after getting word at the news conference that the mine would not go forward.

“I’ve worked with my neighbours here for the last four years, very concerned about our water quality. I just am so relieved that the government listened to the concerns raised by the Clean Environment Commission,” she said.

Georgina and Joshua Mustard’s home is adjacent to the proposed site of the project.

They say the decision is a long time coming, and a great relief.

“We came here not knowing which way it was going to go, and then to finally get the answer that we’ve been hoping and praying for is unbelievable,” Georgina said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster, for sure.”

“We’re not against development, but it’s just got to be done in the right manner, in the right way – safely,” Joshua said.

Project plagued with controversy, pushback

The move is the latest in a saga of pushback and controversy surrounding the proposed mine.

In September, area councillors Mark Miller and Andy Kuczynski say they received a letter from a lawyer representing Sio Silica, saying the company was considering “action for misfeasance in public office” over the two councillors’ continued attempts to “delay and disrupt” the project.

Dozens of residents showed up for a rally outside the Springfield municipal office opposing the project, and thousands of people phoned into a private residents’ referendum held in the RM. They were asked if they supported the silica sand extraction project.

According to the group organizing the referendum – a group that has been fiercely opposed to the project – more than 96 per cent of people who phoned in voted against it.

“We are really pleased with the decision,” Kucyznski said after the news conference.

“We represent the residents of this municipality and through the referendum, we have 5,000 people who were against it, so it’s a victory for all these people who didn’t want this project going forward.”

Meantime, two former Progressive Conservative cabinet ministers – Kevin Klein and Rochelle Squires – said their own government tried to push through the project just days before the new NDP government was officially sworn in.

In the aftermath of the provincial election, Klein says he got a phone call on Oct. 12 from his colleague Jeff Wharton – then minister of economic development, investment and trade.

Klein, who was the minister of environment and climate at the time, said Wharton asked him to sign a directive that would allow a license to be approved for Sio Silica.

Squires said Wharton reached out to her as well, asking the same thing.

“Obviously, it was not an appropriate request and the approvals were not given,” Squires told CTV News.

Wharton has denied the accusation, and has said he was simply gathering information about the mining project to pass on to the incoming government.

In the aftermath, the governing NDP asked the provincial ethics commissioner to investigate the PCs over the move.

– With files from CTV’s Danton Unger

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