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Jumbo Resort's Last-Minute Construction Push

One week before Sunday's deadline, a controversial ski development breaks ground.

Judith Lavoie 11 Oct 2014Desmog Canada

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the Victoria Times Colonist for more than 20 years and is now working as a freelancer. She previously worked on newspapers in New Brunswick, Cyprus, England and the Middle East. Lavoie has won four Webster awards and has been nominated for a National Newspaper Award and a Michener Award.

The clock is ticking towards the deadline for Glacier Resorts Ltd. to prove substantial progress has been made in constructing a controversial all-season ski resort in East Kootenay. This week the company made a last-minute push to transform a wilderness valley into an active building site.

Jumbo Glacier Resort was first granted an environmental assessment certificate -- with 195 conditions -- in 2004. It was renewed in 2009 and, by law, the certificate, which expires Sunday, Oct. 12, cannot be renewed a second time. For the certificate to become permanent, the company must show B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Office that substantial work has been completed.

On Oct. 9, the province's Enironmental Assessment Office wrote a letter* to the project's proponents stating that the project has been found to be non-compliant with three pre-construction conditions related to the monitoring of streamflows, fish habitat, water quality and road use.

“Our common practice is to work with companies to first focus on approaches to begin to address non-compliances such as these before determining if any formal enforcement is appropriate,” the letter states. “This warning is a first step in the enforcement process, and the Province may choose take further compliance action with regard to existing or future non-compliance.”

Robyn Duncan of Wildsight, a non-profit group spearheading opposition to the resort proposal, says the conditions need to be upheld.

“The B.C. government has an opportunity to prove their claims to the people of B.C. that we have a rigorous environmental assessment process in place by upholding these commitments and stopping construction until they have been satisfied,” she said.

“Show British Columbians that environmental protection is a priority of this government.”

Earlier this month, apart from brush-clearing and sticking markers in the ground, there were few signs of construction at the site in the heart of the Purcell Mountains. But this week has seen a flurry of activity, and cement foundations have now been poured for a lift and day lodge.

The last-ditch activity has infuriated opponents who are questioning why, after years of inaction, the proponents are now putting on what appears to be a frantic push.

"This is a desperate attempt at the last minute to try and achieve something on the ground and keep their environmental certificate, not to mention save face," said Robyn Duncan of Wildsight, a non-profit group spearheading opposition to the resort proposal.

"After 10 years, all they have been able to accomplish is to pour the foundation for one day lodge and one lift footing."

An Environment Ministry spokesman said Thursday that Environmental Assessment Office staff will be at the Jumbo site Monday "to document progress for the purpose of the determination on whether the project has been substantially started."

Several ministries and agencies are coordinating the oversight and staff have been in the Jumbo Valley since last Saturday and will be on site every day this week, he said.

Since construction began in August, there have been a dozen site visits and field inspections, according to the ministry.

Weather slows construction

However, a decision is not likely to be made immediately as the Environmental Assessment Office will ask Glacier Resorts, the Ktunaxa Nation Council and Shuswap Indian Band to provide information to help determine whether the project was substantially started by Sunday, said the ministry spokesman.

"If Glacier Resorts Inc. decides to work past October 12, they are potentially at risk of constructing without an environmental certificate," he said.

If it was found the project was not substantially started, any work done after October 12 would violate the Environmental Assessment Act.

Already the last-minute work has run into problems with the uncertain fall weather. Opponents, taking part in a rally near the entrance to the Jumbo property on October 6, cheered when cement trucks were unable to get up the unpaved road because of mud.

"Mother Nature is working her magic," said a posting on the Jumbo Wild website.

Tommaso Oberti, vice-president of Pheidias Project Management Corp., the group designing the resort, said between six and 10 inches of rain fell at the resort site the previous night.

"It made the last few kilometres of the access road very muddy and difficult for heavy trucks. The contractors are making improvements to the road," he wrote in an email.

Three days later, cement trucks were able to drive into the wilderness site, 55 kilometres from Invermere, and construction started.

The weekend's botched attempt to bring in cement trucks is an example of the project's disorganization, said Wildsight's Duncan.

"You'd think they would have checked the road conditions first. This is supposedly a billion-dollar project. It's indicative of what we have seen over the last 10 years -- desperate efforts and runarounds."

Court challenges loom

Glacier Resorts is also facing two court challenges. The Ktunaxa Nation is appealing a B.C. Supreme Court decision that turned down an application for a judicial review. The case is based on alleged inadequate consultation and the constitutional right to freedom of religion. The Jumbo Valley is considered sacred to the Ktunaxa people as the home of the Grizzly Bear Spirit.

Also, the West Kootenay EcoSociety is challenging the incorporation of Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality.

The plan for a 6,000-bed resort, with more than 20 ski lifts, was initially proposed 24 years ago, and the Master Plan was approved by the province in 2007. In 2012, the province changed the Local Government Act and created the Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality, with an appointed mayor and council, even though the community has no residents and no buildings.

The municipality initially received $260,000 in provincial grants and its five-year plan calls for a further $200,000 a year. The municipality has also received about $50,000 in federal gas tax money.

Critics, including the Union of B.C. Municipalities, have railed against the province funding a municipality with no citizens. In addition to the mayor and council having no accountability to voters, under the municipality's Letters Patent, council must adhere to the resort's Master Plan -- meaning building permits and approvals are all but automatic.

Oberti said cash also flows from the province to Jumbo opponents, such as $1.4 million to the District of Invermere for improving tourism infrastructure and $1.65 million to the Ktunaxa Nation to help with land and resource decisions.

Opponents say funding for an existing municipality and a First Nation are a far cry from funding for a private, for-profit enterprise.  [Tyee]

*Story updated Oct. 11 at 10:57 a.m.

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