Construction at Jumbo Glacier Resort has been suspended by B.C. environment officials who say the foundations for the first two buildings in the proposed project have been laid in an avalanche zone – the same construction sites that were inspected last fall by Environment Minister Mary Polak.
Ms. Polak visited the proposed development about 55 kilometres west of Invermere last October to assess if construction had met her ministry's requirements to be substantially under way. At that time, she told reporters she believed the two buildings that had been started were safely located, despite warnings from a local heli-ski operator that the buildings were in an avalanche path.
Ms. Polak said in an interview Tuesday she did not feel like she was standing in an exposed avalanche zone when she toured two building sites, comforted by the sight of large trees that seemed to indicate that the construction was located out of harm's way. "There was nothing of note when you were there, visually, other than [observing ] there were trees there that were more than 100 years old," she said.
Now, those concrete foundations that were supposed to demonstrate significant construction may have to be torn out after a new avalanche study commissioned at the developer's expense showed the day lodge is being built in an area that is at moderate risk of an avalanche. An adjacent service building was considered to be in a high-risk avalanche zone. Both are out of compliance with the terms of the environmental certificate.
"It is the [Environmental Assessment Office's] view that it is not possible for [the developer] to achieve compliance … with the two structures as currently located," states the April 24 letter to the developer, Glacier Resorts Ltd. The terms of Jumbo's environmental certificate state that residential and commercial structures are to be located "completely outside of the avalanche hazard area."
Construction must stop until the minister makes a decision, which is expected in June. If she allows Jumbo to keep its environmental certificate, compliance and enforcement officers will decide if the structures have to be removed. The developer can appeal, or offer a mitigation plan.
The proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort, located high in the Purcell Mountains, has been in the planning stages for 24 years. It promises a uniquely reliable base for skiing – North America's first year-round ski resort.
The B.C. Liberal government has been supportive of the project, creating a resort municipality, providing a $200,000 annual budget and appointing a mayor and council to manage this still-undeveloped wilderness. But the municipal authority has so little to do that it posted a surplus of almost $400,000 last year.
There has been strong local opposition to the project, led by the Ktunaxa First Nation. It has gone to court seeking to block the development, saying the resort will destroy sacred sites. Ktunaxa council chair Kathryn Teneese said Tuesday she cannot see how Ms. Polak can find that the project has been substantially started when the only two buildings in construction are not in compliance with the environmental permit. "What I'm concerned about is that she make a decision that protects the integrity of her ministry," Ms. Teneese said in an interview. "We are hoping the minister will heed what her compliance folks are telling her."
Michelle Mungall, the NDP MLA for Nelson-Creston, said Ms. Polak cannot allow the developer to continue. "They threw a concrete slab down to try to demonstrate 'substantial construction.' What we now know, and no-one can deny, is that it is in an avalanche path, which is completely throwing public safety to the wind," she said. "She's got to shut it down – that's the right path to be headed down, not down an avalanche path."
Oberto Oberti, the developer, did not respond to an interview request, but said last year the Environment Ministry's restrictions related to avalanche hazards are unreasonable and should be changed. He argued that the avalanche risk would be managed as part of normal operations for a ski resort.