The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development has changed its mind.
Last month a spokesperson for the ministry told the Star the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK) never requested an independent assessment of terrain stability in the Laird Creek drainage near Balfour.
When the Star responded by forwarding a letter written in May from the RDCK to the ministry requesting just such an assessment, the spokesperson replied, “My apologies for the confusion. A regional geomorphologist with the ministry will peer review Cooper Creek Cedar’s terrain stability report during the cutting permit review process.”
Cooper Creek Cedar wants to reopen a logging road that traverses the Laird Creek drainage in order to reach a new cut block. The construction and location of the road is widely believed to have been the cause of a slide in 2011 that plugged a number of rural water systems below it. The company that built the road a few years before that, BC Timber Sales, temporarily provided drinking water to about 100 homes after the slide.
Ramona Faust, who represents the area on the RDCK board, says the 2011 Laird Creek landslide happened after consultant Greg Utzig, working for the ministry, recommended against building the road but the company went ahead and built it anyway. After the landslide, this was reported to the watchdog Forest Practices Board, which decided (amid some local controversy) that BC Timber Sales had done nothing wrong.
Since then, the process known as the professional reliance model has come into effect and expert studies are commissioned by the timber company, in this case Cooper Creek Cedar, not the ministry.
An expert hired by Cooper Creek Cedar has done a terrain stability study related to the reopening of the road.
The meaning of ‘independent’
A peer review by ministry staff of the existing study commissioned by Cooper Creek Cedar is not good enough for the Laird Creek Water Users group. They want a new review conducted by an independent expert, because they say they’ve been down this road before.
“We told Ramona Faust that we’re not interested in a ‘peer review’ by ministry staff,” Al Walters wrote in an email to the Star this week, “because we had exactly that during the planning for the road and block that caused the 2011 landslide.
“The ministry peer review by their geo-morphologist and hydrologist was not thorough in our opinion, and stated explicitly that a landslide was not likely to occur right in the area that it eventually happened. Following that experience, we don’t see the ministry as ‘independent’ in any functional, meaningful sense.”
Is a peer review by ministry staff of Cooper Creek Cedar’s existing study good enough for the RDCK, or does it want a new study by an outsider?
That’s unclear. RDCK chair Aimee Watson told the Star they did not make the distinction when the board requested that a review be undertaken.
“We never specified. If [the ministry] was willing to provide community safety assurance through third party assessment, that was our goal. We did not get to a point where we debated if in-house would still erode trust and thus need to be outsourced.”
As for the ministry, a spokesman told the Star this week that it would not fund an independent study.
Faust thinks the province should provide intervenor funding in such situations.
“If BC Hydro or a utility is going to put up their rates there is a process for everyone to comment and for research to be funded. And here we have millions of dollars worth of real estate that basically becomes useless or people have to incur individual costs of trying to drill wells when they built with the understanding there was potable water.
“So we have a situation where one investment is seen as better than another, and I think that is out of balance. If there is an opportunity to comment on utility rates because it is public trust, then I believe that there should be intervenor funding for communities.”