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Regional District monitors pair of coal company acquisitions

Drew A. Penner, Comox Valley Echo, May 16 2014

Comox Valley Regional District staff are monitoring a couple of recent property deals by coal companies in the area, as protesters maintain a vocal opposition to turning Eastern Vancouver Island into a fuelling station for Asian development.

Alana Mullaly, manager of planning services for the Comox Valley Regional District and Kent Leontowich, rural planner, said while mining operations aren't exactly around the corner, there are a lot of unknowns that make local officials uneasy, during the committee of the whole meeting May 13.

"These coal licences are for the purposes of obtaining the subsurface coal rights only," Leontowich said, of the 2,287 hectares of underground land now in the hands of Hillsborough Resources Ltd and the 1,448 hectares by Compliance Coal Corp. "Staff will ensure that a follow-up report is brought to this committee."

On March 24, 2014 the CVRD received confirmation that two permits had been issued to Hillsborough within the Woodhouse Creek/Oyster River area. One is for 1,110 hectares in area and the other for 1,177 hectares.

A separate licence was issued to Compliance May 5, 2014 by BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Gas, with the tenure covering 1448 hectares in size that encompasses the sensitive Tsolum River watershed.

Compliance president and Chief Operating Officer Steve Ellis said this was an old application that was submitted in 2007 and even paid for at that time.

"We own lots of coal licences," he said, in an interview. "In 2007 we were still in the exploration phase. We were buying coal licences when we could get them.

"Right now we have no intention of expanding on that at all. You would have to get a permit for exploration - which I don't think you would get, because it's in the runoff area for Courtenay. If you were to develop it as a coal mine you would have similar issue to what we're having with the Raven Coal mine. So we're only progressing the Raven Coal Mine environmental assessment at the moment."

Compliance has faced stiff opposition from aquaculture, First Nations and citizen interests groups for its proposed Raven Coal Mine project, which is an underground extraction operation designed to take the fossil fuel from near Fanny Bay and send it across the Pacific Ocean.

Over the weekend the Council of Canadians held a rally that attracted more than 100 people to downtown Courtenay with signs in protest of fossil fuel projects, including the Raven Coal Mine plan.

"Right now the price of coal is down which we think has seriously affected Compliance Coal's plans around the Raven Underground Coal Mine," said Alice de Wolff, a Comox Valley Council of Canadians coal campaigner, adding this would be a more expensive project than other types of extraction. "If they find that there's coal closer to the surface they may go ahead with proposals for strip mining."

She's also worried by the province's recent proposal to increase the capacity for storing coal on Texada Island.

"There's some longer term thinking going on here that's looking at us as a coal resource area," she said. "It's not just the one site, but a whole bunch of them.

On March 31, I-Comox Coal Inc. officially backed out of the Raven Underground project, although Ellis says LG, from Korea, is still committed to the venture. Compliance recently issued 16,000,000 common shares at a price of $0.025 each, to generate about $400,000 to make up for the loss of the other player.

Ellis is optimistic the company will be able to resubmit their environmental assessment later this year, though planners had originally expected the comprehensive document as early as last December.

"We're in a good position to move forward mid-this year," he said.

Mullaly said the Raven Coal Mine falls under the old federal Environmental Assessment Act, but worries how much review newly acquired parcels would face, due to what environmental groups have characterized as a weakening of protection.

"We're not sure how these projects would play out here," she said. "Our thinking would be that it would be less stringent."

The Tsolum River, Dove Creek and Browns River could all be affected by any coal extraction in the new areas.

Lazo North director Jim Gillis said in a nutshell the company can now sit on its licences until it devises a strategy.

Baynes Sound director Jollife noted the chief gold commissioner for the province has a lot of power in these matters.

"They can actually recommend that this coal be kept for a long time before we develop it," he said. "Unfortunately they don't ever seem to authorize it - we have pointed that out to them. We will just see where things go, and I really appreciate staff keeping us up to date with these activities."

Cumberland director Gwyn Sproule noted the CVRD has specifically asked the gold commissioner to require baseline environmental studies to be done before such licences are issued.

"The chief gold commissioner asked us for comments and we gave our comments," she said. "These were not heeded as far as I can see."

This has led to a feeling of being "totally powerless and not listened to," she noted.

"The other issue is that these are very important fish bearing areas," she said. "All these lakes are very sensitive."

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