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EAO recommends against Bamberton Quarry environmental review, but final decision is up to the Minister

A view of the Bamberton quarry looking south towards Central Saanich and Highlands. (Google Earth)

A relatively small quarry and fill site in Bamberton has gotten a lot of attention this winter after a local environmental group asked for a full environmental assessment on the mine’s expansion application.

The Environmental Assessment Office agreed to consider whether the project should have an assessment, but ultimately recommended against one in its preliminary report shared in January. The public participation period closed Feb. 21, and the final decision is now on Environment Minister George Hayman’s desk.

The Bamberton Quarry’s expansion plan is below the established threshold that would automatically trigger an environmental assessment—a process the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) says can take up to five years, depending on the scope.

The threshold for an automatic assessment is an increase of more than 50% land disturbance and 250,000 more tonnes of production a year. Malahat Investment Corporation applied for a permit to expand the quarry’s land disturbance by 16%, and its annual production by 239,000 tonnes a year. It has also asked to extend its foreshore lease and add more permitted activities to the dock area, such as transporting contaminated soils, creosote piles, cement powder, scrap metal, and more.

Local environmental group Saanich Inlet Protection Society (SIPS) says this quarry has a history of expanding to a level just below the EAO’s threshold. Since that threshold is based on a percentage increase, each increase can get bigger and bigger without triggering a review.

SIPS had support from from some municipalities, First Nations, neighbours, and other local organizations in calling for a full environmental assessment. The EAO review included comments from the Malahat Investment Corporation and Coast Mountain Resources which operates the quarry, SIPS, and other interested parties.

If its permit is approved by the mines ministry, Bamberton Quarry’s production will hit 479,000 tonnes a year. For comparison, that’s a fraction of the six million tonnes Orca Sand & Gravel processes and transports each year out of Port McNeill. That mine was established in the early 2000s with an estimated life span of 30 years, plus decommissioning time.

‘It seemed the ministries concerned operate in separate silos’

A common frustration among protesters, whether environmental or other, is a perception that governments manage projects in silos, boundaried by legislation, technical precedence, and jurisdiction. One ministry is responsible for water management, another might assess the risk of contamination on wildlife, while a third considers economic impact. Each ministry is careful not to overlap its jurisdiction with another—while the people trying to change the status quo see themselves as looking at the big picture.

This was SIPS’ core argument for asking for the environmental review: that three separate permit applications, and repeated expansions, were not being evaluated holistically.

As one commenter wrote, “There has never been a comprehensive environmental assessment of this industrial site that meets modern standards and uses modern data. There is a history of multiple permit amendments ‘just under the threshold.’ Without an EA how can the public be confident that there is an integrated overview of the cumulative impacts of the project?”

The EAO answered that BC does have a Cumulative Effects Framework, and that other ministries—forestry and mines—might consider a cumulative impact assessment if they deem it necessary.

As to impact on the Saanich Inlet itself, which is the core concern for many objectors to the quarry expansion, the EAO wrote that it has no information showing the expansion “would result in a measurable contribution to existing cumulative effects in the inlet.” Meaning, whatever information that’s been submitted so far hasn’t demonstrated a cumulative need to worry about.

SIPS is categorically unimpressed with the process, as it wrote in multiple press releases. Public engagement was not adequate in its opinion, and did not reflect the public interest and stake in the project. But moreso, SIPS said it feels the EAO misunderstood the basis of their request for an environmental assessment.

“SIPS made the request for an [environmental assessment] partly because it seemed the Ministries concerned operate in separate silos concerned only with the details of each application. Their mandates do not require an integrated evaluation of the environmental consequences of the cumulative effects of their combined projects,” the organization wrote.

“The draft report completely misrepresents the reasons for an environmental assessment request for the foreshore lease,” its president Eric Falkenberg-Poetz added in the release.