A controversial proposal to mine more than 16 million tons of coal in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island has been withdrawn in the face of growing criticism about the negative impacts it could have on rich shellfish and salmon grounds.
Stephen Ellis, president of Compliance Coal Corporation, said his company has backed out of the B.C. environmental assessment process for the proposed Raven coal mine not because it's environmentally risky, but because there is so much public misunderstanding about the project. And he made clear the company hasn't given up on the proposal yet.
"We received a load of misinformation around Port Alberni and the shellfish people and we just think it's appropriate at this time that we withdraw from the screening process," Mr. Ellis said.
Asked what misinformation he was concerned about, Mr. Ellis said it was largely public comments regarding the possible impact the mine would have on shellfish beds in Baynes Sound and on Port Alberni Inlet.
The proposal would have seen the coal trucked across Vancouver Island from near Baynes Sound, on the east coast, to the deep seaport at Port Alberni, on the west coast.
Baynes Sound is one of the richest shellfish areas in British Columbia, producing about $28-million of oysters, scallops and clams annually. And the inlet at Port Alberni is an important rearing area for young salmon.
Mr. Ellis said the project would not leach pollutants into Baynes Sound as many fear, and he dismissed concerns that coal dust could blow into Port Alberni Inlet, saying the loading facility would be covered.
He said the company is trying to think of the best strategy to deal with the "misinformation" issue.
"I mean, this all happened pretty quickly yesterday, and I need to get my head around it fully," he said Tuesday.
The decision to withdraw from the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) review came just as the 30-day process was about to conclude. Mr. Ellis admitted he was concerned the proposal might have been rejected by the EAO, which refused it once before in 2013 because of inadequate information.
But he said the project is a good one and he hopes it can be resubmitted in the future.
"We've invested over $20-million in this so far. You know, you just don't give something like that up," he said.
Port Alberni Mayor Mike Ruttan said he wasn't surprised the project was pulled, because there are so many unanswered questions about its impact.
Two weeks ago, the city's environmental review committee tabled a report that concluded: "There are too many unconfirmed and/or unresearched statements and conditions through the reapplication to give much confidence that the health of the marine environment … has been adequately considered."
Mr. Ruttan said the first Raven mine proposal had been rejected by the EAO because it failed to address key areas of concern, and the second proposal wasn't any better.
"In fact, there were zero changes the second time around," he said. "From our perspective as a city, they hadn't done anything to address the concerns."
Torrance Coste, Vancouver Island campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, said he was surprised the proposal had suddenly been pulled.
"Totally out of the blue. … We weren't expecting it at all. But it's positive … it means the project is off the table for now," he said.
Mr. Coste called on the company to abandon the project permanently, saying communities have been worried about it for far too long.
"It would be nice to have some closure on this," he said of communities such as Fanny Bay, in Baynes Sound, and Port Alberni. "This has been hanging over their heads for five years and they deserve to have some closure on it. They deserve to have this threat to their water, their ecosystems, taken away."