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BC Election 2013 Hot Riding: Kamloops-North Thompson

Enviro Minister Terry Lake faces uprising by Kamloops doctors worried about open pit mine at city's edge.

By Allison Griner 25 Apr 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Allison Griner is covering the B.C. 2013 election while completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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Among candidates competing to represent Kamloops-North Thompson: Incumbent BC Liberal MLA Terry Lake and NDP candidate Kathy Kendall.

For the moment, the area southwest of Kamloops, B.C., remains rolling grassland, interspersed with patchy woods and lakes. But already, terracing of the ground has begun. By 2014, full-scale construction could start to transform the landscape into a 261-hectare open pit mine for gold and copper.

Ore would be blasted from the ground and its waste warehoused nearby -- all this, happening mere kilometres away from Kamloops schools and neighborhoods.

Dr. Jill Calder has spent her entire career in Kamloops, a total of almost 22 years now. Mines are nothing new to her. The largest open pit copper mine in Canada lies only 75 kilometres away and employs many from Kamloops, and another gold-and-copper mine recently reopened 10 km away.

None, however, have ventured so close to the city as this proposed mine, called the Ajax project. This unprecedented proximity has Calder and other physicians banding together out of concern that the city's health might be put in danger.

Barely three weeks ago, they formed the Kamloops Physicians for a Healthy Environment, a group of local physicians pressing for an independent health assessment of the mine.

"We don't disagree with mining and the creation of jobs and projects that are good for the economy. But this particular mine, in this location, we are against it," says Calder.

The mine project's proposed boundaries will overlap with Kamloop's city limits, and its facilities will come within 1.5 km of a residential area. Even institutions further away could feel the ramifications, according to the mine's critics. Wind and the sloping nature of the land could carry pollutants towards the city's schools, hospitals and seniors' residences.

Now, with an election on in British Columbia, the mine has become a key issue in close fought battles for the Kamloops-North Thompson and Kamloops South-Thompson ridings.

Among those competing are an NDP candidate highly critical of the project, and the incumbent who, serving as the BC Liberal government's environment minister, passed on a chance to press for a joint provincial and federal review of the mine proposal.

Standing up for patients

A director of rehabilitation services at the Royal Inland Hospital, Calder hadn't planned on being an advocate. She and her colleagues were content watching other advocacy groups and the mine's main proponent, KGHM International, duke it out.

"We then were hearing, 'Well, why aren't the physicians saying anything?'" says Calder.

The Kamloops Physicians for a Healthy Environment was their response. Calder estimates that the total membership so far totals to nearly 50 physicians. Calder was one of the group's first members, and she forms what she calls the "core" of the group with about 20 other doctors.

This "core" has put itself in charge of reviewing medical literature related to mining. Feeling KGHM has not been "transparent and forthcoming" with the health concerns surrounding the project, the doctors started comparing their case to other mining projects, including the Rio Tinto Kennecott copper mine near Salt Lake City, Utah.

"I became quite concerned that I am under-informed. I'm a rehab doctor, and I know nothing about this. Just overviewing the literature, it was really powerful," says Calder.

The Salt Lake City example was what initially galvanized Dr. Twila Burgmann, a local gastroenterologist. In March, she attended a speech given by Dr. Brian Moench, who presented his experiences with illness while living near the Rio Tinto mine.

Moench's advocacy group, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, became the inspiration for Kamloops's own circle of physicians a few weeks later.

"I basically stood up at one of our medical staff meetings. There might have been about 60 people there," says Burgmann. "I basically said that we need to form an independent group of physicians to try to pursue this issue to make sure our patients are fairly represented and have accurate information."

Right off the bat, Burgmann recalls, 30 people signed up to participate.

'I feel compelled to speak'

The physicians worry that heavy metals unleashed through mining will seep into the soil or be picked up by the wind as dust. They worry the local water table will plummet under the strain of the mine's operations. They worry about the added emissions that burning diesel will release into the city.

When it comes to mining's effects, Burgmann says medical literature is "exploding" with cases recently. From her readings, Burgmann believes that the air pollution from the mine could increase instances of lung disease, cancer, heart attacks, strokes and neurological diseases like Parkinson's.

"I'm concerned about our citizens and feel that, unfortunately, I feel it's my job to speak up. I feel compelled to speak," she says. "One of the roles we're supposed to fulfill as a physician is a health advocate."

Already, at the beginning of this year, Kamloops was issued an air quality advisory, due to the fine particles floating in the air. The Ministry of the Environment warned residents, particularly those with health conditions, to stay indoors.

For a city that touts itself as the "tournament capital" of Canada for hosting so many sporting events and teams, further air pollution could be bad news for both the city's health and economy, warns Burgmann.

She says the goal of the physicians' group is two-fold: to secure a health impact assessment conducted independently of the mining proponents, and to get a federal panel review of the project.

Environment Minister Peter Kent, however, nixed the idea of a federal panel in early 2012. But Burgmann isn't deterred. The provincial election is bringing the issue again to the fore. "It's a big decision for Kamloops," she says.

Politics in the mix

Kamloops-South Thompson NDP candidate Tom Friedman says he and his party were "front-and-center" on the Ajax project since it was announced two years ago.

"I realized very quickly from listening to people in the doorstep from canvassing that this was a big issue," says Friedman. In his estimation, a six-to-one ratio of Kamloops residents opposes the mine.

As part of his platform, Friedman has promised to bring a legislative petition to Victoria, in order to give the public a chance to voice its concerns against the mine.

The NDP had previously lobbied B.C.'s environment minister, Terry Lake, to hold a joint federal-provincial review panel about the Ajax project. Instead, Lake stood by the federal environment minister's decision not to convene a panel.

A former mayor of Kamloops, Lake is also running for reelection in the Kamloops-North Thompson riding on behalf of the Liberals. By not pursuing a review panel for the mine, Friedman says Lake "struck a foreign note" with his constituents.

"A lot of people said to me, 'Shouldn't the main focus for the minister of environment be the environment and not be a cheerleader for this type of project?'" says Friedman.

For Friedman, the Ajax mine debate echoes a larger social paradox in British Columbia: "We can't make a choice between environmental protection and development."

Kathy Kendall, the NDP candidate running against Lake in Kamloops-North Thompson, shares Friedman's criticism that the mine review process is inadequate. But she hasn't taken a firm stance against the mine.

"I'm finding particularly as you head up towards Barriere and Clearwater, lots of families where the breadwinner is working in the oil sands, they'd like jobs close to home to keep their families together," Kendall was quoted in KamloopsThisWeek in February.

The Tyee named Kamloops-North Thompson one of B.C.'s top 10 "ridings to watch" this provincial election. At the time this article was published The Tyee was predicting that the NDP was "likely" to win both Kamloops ridings away from the BC Liberals.

Debate is premature: mining firm rep

All the debate about the mine's health issues is premature, says Robin Bartlett, a KGHM representative for the Ajax mine. Her company is in the middle of its own environmental assessment and hasn't had the chance to release its results yet.

"We do want to provide answers to the community, so they're able to make educated decisions on the mine based on the facts we're able to present. And that's all were hoping for, that they'll wait to make their decision," Bartlett says.

The environmental assessment, she says, is composed of 41 components, each dealing with the various impacts of the mine. While no physicians are employed in the assessment, Bartlett reports that 30 consultants have been tasked with gauging potential effects on air and water.

KGHM International aims to finish all its sampling and testing by the end of September, when it will turn over its results as part of its application to the provincial government. After that, the Environment Assessment Office (EAO) reviews the application for 180 days.

During that period, open houses are held, and concerns are aired. The EAO can also demand clarification or an independent review.

Bartlett says that this timeline is already slightly delayed. When KGHM International purchased 80 per cent of the mine from the Abacus Mining corporation, the company also pushed back the date for submitting its application.

"They were finding they might need to go back and do a little bit more," says Bartlett. The delay would allow KGHM to be "more thorough" in its research.

It also gave Bartlett and her colleagues more chances to interact with the community. They held open houses and opened a booth in the local Aberdeen Mall.

Bartlett hopes to assuage any fears about the mine's proximity to Kamloops. The Ajax mine website proclaims it will be a "zero-discharge facility," mitigating emissions into the air and water. Bartlett also notes her company's track-record building other mines near urban areas.

"We own about nine companies, or nine mines, in the north and south America -- our company does, KGHM International -- and we have couple of sites that are close to or adjacent to communities," she says. "We've been able to do what's necessary to keep it safe and keep the environment safe.

"And that's what we intend to do here."

But Dr. Calder remains skeptical. She believes existing mining rules were established for construction "in the middle of nowhere" -- places with large geographical buffers and no inhabitants except "moose that can't fight you." In other words, not for urban areas.

However, Calder is trying to keep an open mind. "If they can prove to us that all of these worries of particles, of the water table, soil, and air issues are not issues -- if they can prove that we are going to be safe and that it is a viable project on all fronts, then we would entertain that."  [Tyee]

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