Newly announced Manitoba solar glass project raising red flags for advocates

A project given the green light by the government of Manitoba is raising red flags for environmental and land advocates.

On Wednesday, the province said yes to a solar glass project by Canadian Premium Sand (CPS) that will see silica sand mined from Hollow Water First Nation, Man., and processed in Selkirk.

It was promised to bump the economy — creating almost 300 long-term jobs, with 600-700 construction positions, and generating $200 million in provincial taxes over a decade.

But MJ McCarron, a Hollow Water community member of 40 years, is concerned about disruptions to Indigenous practices in the area.

“It’s not about money, it’s about people. It’s about people in their environment. Indigenous people, in particular, are connected to the land,” she said. “That’s where every kid goes to learn how to hunt chickens. That’s where they start their hunting, and that’s a treaty right.

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“It’s devastating because it’s also sacred. It’s a place where ceremony has taken place.”

McCarron expressed that sacred spaces in Indigenous culture aren’t often respected as they should be.

Eric Reder, wilderness and water campaigner with the Wilderness Committee, said he has similar concerns, but is also wary that the government paints the project as a step closer to net-zero carbon emissions.

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He said the province is missing a plan to protect 30 per cent of its land, which was outlined in the minister of environment and climate change’s mandate letter.

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“We don’t have a real critical mineral strategy,” Reder added. “We don’t have an actual action plan on climate in Manitoba.”

There are always environmental risks when it comes to mining, he said, adding that he doesn’t feel all the outcomes have been considered — like silicosis.

Silicosis is “an incurable lung disease that can lead to disability and death” in response to silica particles in the lung, according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. It said there are several ways to prevent the disease, like personal protective equipment.

But Reder said “we don’t know how often sand will blow out of the open pit mine” or “how far it’s going to carry.”

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He said since the original 2019 designs, the risk has been reduced, “but it’s still there.”

There are also questions around the licensing, he said, saying that this was a two-stage licensing process, where a licence was given to CPS to build a mine in Hollow Water, and later a licence was given to the company for the processing facility in Selkirk.

“In 2014, the Manitoba Law Reform Commission had already stated that we have to get rid of two-stage licensing,” Reder said, adding that this process ignores the cumulative impacts to the environment.

Global News reached out to CPS and the province for comment but did not hear back.

Selkirk Mayor Larry Johannson said there tends to be pushback with new projects like this one, but personally, he isn’t worried.

“I am confident that the province has done its due diligence on this. They have looked at all the environmental aspects of it. They would not issue this licence for this plant if there was anything that was a risk,” he said.

“If there was anything that we thought was at risk with this project, I’d be the first to say, ‘I don’t want it to go.’ It’s a go because the province has done its due diligence, and I’m happy with that.”

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He said the project will bump the economy, and there has already been interest from solar panel producers in the United States.

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Government of Manitoba gives OK on solar glass manufacturing project

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