Sanding away environmental credibility

Wednesday, January 17, 2024
A poplar forest in winter
A poplar forest in winter (Eric Reder, Wilderness Committee)

Update - Victory for water! 

The new Manitoba government has rejected the experimental drilling proposal for the aquifers in eastern Manitoba! They announced their decision on Feb 17, 2024.

Congratulations and thanks are due in for Premier Wab Kinew and Environment Minister Tracy Schmidt for paying attention to the science and standing up for our water!

New government needs to say no to bad sand mine plans 

There is never a time to experiment in our drinking water aquifer. That’s the simplest explanation for the Sio Silica environmental licence debacle currently playing out. But here are a few more details to condemn this proposal as a bad idea.  

An Alberta company, Sio Silica, has been pushing to experiment in the groundwater aquifer of towns around Oakbank and Steinbach, with the intent of sucking profits out of our watershed by way of silica sand mining. The very process they are proposing has never been done on this scale and puts our water at risk. In addition, it is nearly impossible to fix an aquifer after it has been damaged. We simply do not have the information or the capabilities to move forward with this preposterous proposal.

Back in 2020, we reached out to Wilderness Committee supporters when the Environment Act licence for the processing plant was applied for, under the name CanWhite Sand. We emphasized that issuing separate licences for a processing plant and the sand mining itself was a sneaky – and mostly abandoned – trick that ignores the cumulative impacts of both projects, as if one wasn’t entirely dependent on the other. One of the last times this two-stage licencing process was used was in 1995 when another former PC government allowed Louisana-Pacific to come in and start clearcutting Duck Mountain Provincial Park. The 2020 sand processing plant licence was issued despite our objections and the obvious faults in the process.

In 2021 Sio Silica filed their Environment Act Proposal to mine sand from the aquifer, and criticism of the project has been growing ever since. Our colleagues in Our Line in the Sand and the Manitoba EcoNetwork have been tracking this bad idea, including through Manitoba Clean Environment Commission (CEC) hearings.

The CEC is supposed to be the independent voice of environmental protection, and the PC government sent the Sio Sand proposal over for review. At the same time, however, the PC government also placed Premier Brian Pallister’s right-hand man and former principal secretary Jonathan Scarth in charge of the CEC. The subsequent recommendations for the Sio Sand proposal, released in 2023, are far from as strong as they should be for an unproven process in a drinking water aquifer.

One could argue it was a coincidence that a weak report was produced by the CEC after Scarth, the former CEO of the Manitoba PC Party, was put in charge. But revelations coming to light right now show at least two PC MLAs — a cabinet minister and the deputy leader — have been controversially lobbying to have this Environment Act licence issued and are facing an ethics probe. With the attempts to ram this licence through by the PCs, the CEC appointment deserves scrutiny.  

But even the watered down CEC report is clear that this proposal is not properly planned out. The CEC report states:

"Members of the panel are unable to state with confidence that all potential environmental effects of this project have been fully considered and that adequate detailed plans have been prepared for preventing or mitigating these effects."

At the end of the day, the plan is a bad idea with unknown consequences. Vacuuming sand that holds up the ground will cause stability problems. Doing so in a drinking water aquifer will likely cause water contamination issues. The reason this has never been done before is because it shouldn’t be done.  

The new government in Manitoba has been handed this mess and must make a decision on it. For the sake of water and to stand up for the healthy environment we all depend on, they must reject the Sio Silica proposal.

Fancy meeting you here at the end of this article! Care to hang out together for a few more sentences?

The campaign you just read about is one of about 20 we’re actively working on at any given time. And the person who wrote this article is the same campaigner who’s asking you to take action, who’s calling on our legislators to make changes and who’s in the field to bring you photos, videos and stories documenting this issue.

Did you notice how we’re a bit distinct, that we’re not afraid to call out the industries or governments that threaten what’s wild? Unlike other groups, we’re almost 100 per cent* “people powered.” Individuals like you who care give what they can, when they can. No corporate or government funding restricts our strategies, our actions or our voice. That’s how we stay a lean, nimble and unequivocally relentless voice for wilderness, wildlife and the climate. That’s why we’d love it if you’d consider joining us by making a monthly donation to the Wilderness Committee today.

We’ve already established you like to read to the end, so here’s the fine print. It’s 96 per cent of our funding which comes from individuals like you and me. About four per cent of our total funding comes from a few grants from foundations. Every gift — no matter the size — has an impact and powers our work for nature.

More from this campaign