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Coal mine benefits lost amid opposition

Editorial, Alberni Valley Times, March 6 2015

Sighs of relief from a countless number of locals were drawn this week as Compliance Energy pulled its proposed coal mine out of the province's regulatory process.

The Raven Underground Coal Project has been an unpopular development with certain lobby groups on Vancouver Island - including a faction of the Port Alberni community, where statements made in media and at public meetings have ranged from relentlessly critical to libelous against those behind the mining project.

The extent of this ire was evident in a report to city council last month from the Raven Underground Coal Environmental Application Review Committee, who focused on the mine's potential to harm tourism and aquatic life in the Alberni Inlet.

Although the committee was formed to advise the city's role in assessing the development, the bias of appointed members was clear when the group had absolutely nothing positive to say about what the mine could bring to Port Alberni.

The Raven coal mine would tap into a 3,100-hectare deposit near Courtney, producing one million tonnes of metallurgical coal a year for export to Japan and South Korea. Port Alberni is cited as the shipping location for the steelmaking product, receiving 70 truckloads of coal a day transported via highways 19 and 4 - including the narrow winding passage through Cathedral Grove's protected old-growth forest.

Three coal loads an hour - plus the empty trucks headed the other way - seems insane along a precarious route already notorious for car crashes and road closures. Yet as the coal mine struggles to gather its case against an imposing wall of public opposition and regulatory delays, an important potential benefit of the development has been lost in recent discourse.

Raven's mine site would lie next to the old EN line, a railway that was once a vital economic link for the Alberni Valley. The EN branch extending from Parksville to Port Alberni has been out of service since 2001, but as recently as last year a major player in B.C.'s railway industry identified the potential of the rusting route.

The Southern Railway of British Columbia, a company that operates lines in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley, expressed interest in upgrading the old EN if the Raven mine was approved by provincial regulators.

During an interview with the Times in early 2014, Southern Railway President Frank Butzelaar estimated the needed upgrades to cost $60 to $80 million through "fairly standard type of work" that is regularly done in the railway business.

"Every port needs to have a rail connection and every dollar we put into the rail corridor is a dollar that's going towards expanding the port in Port Alberni," he said.

The 70 coal trucks a day could be avoided with one 40-car train, slightly longer than the trains that regularly brought goods into what is now the Catalyst Paper mill.

Coal would only be the beginning of what this underused railway could bring to the Valley.

One of the largest projects on the local agenda is the Port Alberni Transshipment Hub, a container facility designed to receive the largest ships in the world.

A railway has been identified as an important asset to launch this development, as some supporters have said an international transshipment hub can't operate without train access.

But as the Raven coal mine retreats from regulatory challenges, reviving the EN railway seems unlikely with no other developments on the horizon to spark the transportation route.

There's never just one side to a story. Unfortunately in the case of this stalled development, any potential benefits have been overwhelmed by an aggressive opposition.

© Copyright 2015 Alberni Valley Times