All In The Same Boat

The public information session with Coalmont Energy Corporation took place at the Tulameen Community Hall this Friday evening.

The meeting was attended by about 50 people, including representatives from Environment Canada, Fisheries, and Interior Health. Our MLA, Jackie Tegart, was there as was our Area ‘H’ representative, Brad Hope. Many people are involved with this and it isn’t over yet.

President Kerry Leong was the first to speak. It was clear that this was a grave situation for him. The first thing he wanted to do was address the initial lack of contact. “I’m sorry we were so slow in community communication, I take responsibility, and apologize”. Initially, the company was unable to respond to the crisis in the best way because they were unprepared for this and nobody at the site had experience in public relations.

Allan McGowan is the mine manager and has been central to everything that has transpired. He has had to deal with the Inspector of Mines, Environment Canada, Forestry, Fisheries, and everyone else with direct concerns – not to mention visits from the media. A lot has happened this week and McGowan has been working far beyond normal.

Much of what needs to be dealt with falls on McGowan’s shoulders. When the disaster happened, there was no one to help him with public relations and damage control. “We heard the discontent. It was loud and clear.” He said. The first priority was to deal with the physical problems and work with Environment Canada. It wasn’t until over a day later that Keith Meldrum was put in charge of communications and our community was informed of what was really going on.

Official testing to determine environmental damage and ensure public safety is the responsibility of the agencies, but the mine will have much remedial work to do. One of the things they are looking at is a secondary containment structure. At this point they have identified 9 points which they need to address. They have already dealt with four of those and hope to complete the remaining five by Sept 6. When the mine will actually reopen will be determined by the Government Mine Inspector.

Although this spill is relatively small as these things go, there is still some cleanup that can be done without further damaging the environment. As McGowan points out, it is easy to do more damage by using high pressure hoses and such, but he said they do have plans to clean up what they can. When asked how far down the river this work will be done, he replied “as far as necessary”. They have hired an independent agency. Triton Environmental Consultants Ltd. and their senior aquatic biologist, Ryan Whitehouse, will be doing this work.

As we have already learned, the contaminants consist of nothing that isn’t normally present other than 6% coal. It is nevertheless prudent to both confirm that and to continue monitoring. There appears to be no concern at this time, but the company promises to keep us informed so that we can be assured that that remains the case.

Bert Rice has pasture on the river and asked McGowan if the water would be safe for his cattle. Could there be problems over time? McGowan answered that he is not the one to answer that. “We cannot say that. It has to come from Interior Health. At this point the water has a clean bill of health from IH, Fisheries, and Environment Canada.” His expertise is mining, and clearly he presumes no authority on the matter of water safety which he defers to the health authorities.

A spokesperson from Interior Health gave us the information about the suitability of the water for different uses. To confirm the safety of the water they tested samples for metals and it showed the water is suitable for both agriculture and residential water use. What they do is match test results with specific guidelines for the different uses. However, they pointed out that right in Collins Gulch, some samples are above acceptable standards for aquatic life but the diluted result in the Tulameen River is a different situation. In any case, so far all tests are within guidelines. This work continues, and some results even came in within the last 3 hours.

There were other concerns voiced by the audience. Will there be fines? Keith Meldrum answered that they don’t know yet. “First we will have to do cleanup and remedial work”. Another person wanted to know if any of this work would cost the taxpayers anything, and a representative from Environment Canada was able to give a definitive answer on the spot: “the law says, company pays”.

This whole affair is going to be expensive for Coalmont Energy. Valuable lessons often are. Both Allan McGowan and Kerry Leong said there was going to be some major changes as a result of this and it was clear they meant it. That’s the up side. Perhaps the down side could have been avoided. But it seems a shame that this should happen at such an early stage in the growth of the company. They employ about 150 people and a good share of those are Coalmontians or from the area. It would be nice if things continued in a way that benefits all of us. Kerry Leong told us at the meeting: “We want to be a good corporate citizen”. “This is a family business and we have some ties to the area as well. We do have a great deal of respect for this area”. It looks like we’re all in the same boat. §

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