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Raven Coal demise should spark a better direction

Torrance Coste, Times Colonist, April 10 2016

Late on Wednesday, B.C’s Environmental Assessment Office pulled the plug on its review of the Raven Coal project. The decision to terminate the review is the final nail in the coffin for Raven Coal and a victory for the communities that fought this proposal for more than six years.

With staggering water use, uncovered tailings heaps and riparian impacts to local creeks and rivers, Raven Coal would have been a disaster for local water quality. It would have filled public highways with gigantic trucks, threatened the renowned Baynes Sound shellfish industry and increased our local contribution to the climate crisis.

But ultimately, the proponents of Raven Coal failed because of their short-sightedness. A risky, 16-year coal mine project is unsustainable in every sense of the word and central Vancouver Island rightfully rejected this model of long-term pain for short-term gain.

So what does this mean, and where do we go from here?

While it’s important that we give credit where it’s due — to the inspiring CoalWatch Comox Valley Society and the thousands of citizens they mobilized — this is also a moment to think about economic development on Vancouver Island.

Do activities that benefit so few at the expense of the environment have a place here? Is it responsible to develop projects with short lifespans that leave us vulnerable to the boom-bust cycle that has hurt many communities on the Island?

Unfortunately, Raven Coal isn’t the only proposed or active project here that fits this description.

In the Saanich Inlet, a corporation called Steelhead is looking to build a floating liquefied natural gas terminal off Bamberton called Malahat LNG. Bringing underwater pipelines, floating terminals and supertankers into an already sensitive waterway is a giant leap in the wrong direction at a time when we have to phase out fossil fuels.

In the Walbran Valley, Surrey-based logging company Teal Jones is cutting into the last large intact old-growth rainforest on southern Vancouver Island. Thousand-year-old trees are not a renewable resource. They have been removed from the vast majority of Vancouver Island; those that are left should be protected.

In these and other cases, short-term development is prioritized and a conversation about what’s best for Vancouver Island 10, 20 and 30 years down the road is utterly absent.

It’s time for that to change.

What if multi-generational benefits and long-term environmental health were the primary criteria for economic projects?

What if we extracted fewer resources on a more sustainable basis and turned them into finished products here?

What if we prioritized food security, for example?

The amount of food grown on Vancouver Island has decreased dramatically in the past 50 years, to the point where we now depend on imported products. If we were to set a goal that three-quarters of all food consumed on the Island must be produced on the Island, we’d increase our food security and employ a lot of people in the process. And since the human race isn’t going to stop eating any time soon, these jobs would be around forever, unlike the short-term employment in old-growth logging or fossil-fuel extraction.

Sure, revamping the local economy with a greater focus on manufacturing and agriculture is an ambitious undertaking, but so is removing some of the largest trees on the planet from remote hillsides in the Walbran Valley.

Proponents of the status quo deride the transition to a local, value-added economy as unfeasible. These are the same people who support risky projects such as underwater pipelines from Washington state to Mill Bay.

Increasing the say that local jurisdictions have in decision-making is more responsible, democratic and just.

With indigenous communities, we should go even further. Most corporations talk about consultation with First Nations and make vague commitments about involving them. What if, instead, we followed First Nations’ leads on development? True reconciliation requires the return of authority to indigenous peoples, so let’s start with land use and the way we create and sustain jobs.

The knowledge, passion and commitment to create a better future exist on Vancouver Island. In the Comox and Alberni valleys, citizens are now free from the shadow of an unwanted coal mine, and can focus on building alternatives.

But we’re still degrading ecosystems in the Walbran Valley, still wasting time with projects such as Malahat LNG. If we can rule out these short-sighted activities that threaten the environment for minimal benefit, the possibilities for what we can create instead are endless.

Torrance Coste is Vancouver Island campaigner for the Wilderness Committee.

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