Prospect of economic boost pits residents against business groups

The Ajax File: All That Glitters - Part 4 of 5

When word hit that half of the proposed KGHM Ajax Inc. copper-gold mine would rest inside city limits, a line in the sand was drawn between business leaders, residents and environmentalists.

The arguing points in the battle range from the money and jobs - 1,000 during construction and 350-400 permanent - the mine will generate during its 23 years to the devastation it could cause to the landscape.

Then there are the residents of Aberdeen and Pineview Valley who fear they will live just kilometres away from a noisy, dirty neighbour that threatens to destroy their neighbourhood.

"We're getting the wool pulled over our eyes in terms of what it is," said Hector Drive resident John Schleiermacher.

A financial analyst and avid outdoorsman, Schleiermacher has spent countless hours researching the mine since he first heard about the project earlier this year. He was also among the 400 residents who attended a public meeting with representatives from KGHM Ajax in June.

He doesn't believe people are being fed the right information about the project, something he points out was apparent when early reports said the mine would be 10 kilometres outside the city. It's since been made clear that half the site is within town limits.

But Schleiermacher said it's worse than that. He took a team from The Daily News to the cellphone tower atop what is commonly known as Coal Hill, a 20-minute march from the end of Aberdeen Drive. Looking west from the tower one can see rolling hills, stands of trees, a portion of Jacko Lake and rural properties.

On this day, Schleiermacher carried a map of the mine property and held it up to the view. If the project goes ahead, everything visible from the tower will be gone.

"They're going to put an explosive facility a few hundred yards from somebody's home," he said, referring to the blasting that will form the pit. "There's going to be a waste rock facility to the north that will be directly beside the Pineview Valley. It's going to be 20 to 30 storeys of waste rock.

All the comings and going at the mine, from moving earth to blasting, will create a barrage of noise and dust that will flow northeast towards Aberdeen and the thousands of people who call it home, he said.

And the impact the mine will have on the landscape and the environment is an affront to everything Schleiermacher stands for. He moved his family to Kamloops 35 years ago and fell in love with the community and surrounding area.

He joined the B.C. Wildlife Federation and the Kamloops Fish and Game Club, which he was vice president of for seven years, to give something back to the land he hunts and fishes on. If the mine goes ahead, all that will be gone, he said.

The fact that the mine will affect the environment is something Kamloops Chamber of Commerce president Peter Aylen can't deny. And the project hinges on a passing grade from a pending environmental review.

But he said one also can't deny the economic boom that comes from having an employer like KGHM so close to town and the well-paying jobs it provides.

He compared the impact to Domtar, saying the mine might employ 400, but about 1,000 jobs in the community will be directly related to it. These will include jobs that supply products or conduct business at the mine.

"It's not just 400 jobs. It's substantially more than that," said Aylen. "This is not small. This is a huge opportunity."

He said Highland Valley, with its 1,000 jobs, represents 15 per cent of the Kamloops economy. And the economic spinoff from that doesn't just boost the city; it impacts Logan Lake, Merritt and other surrounding communities as well.

"It's not just Kamloops. It's the whole region that benefits," Aylen said.

Environmental activist Ruth Madsen doesn't believe the economic spinoff is worth the land and the community's well-being, and she's prepared to fight KGHM on all fronts.

She was one of the key people who battled Aboriginal Cogeneration Corp. when it proposed building a rail tie gasifier in Kamloops. Her effort, and the public support it generated, convinced ACC president Kim Sigurdson that his was a bad idea, at least in Kamloops.

Now she's in the process of mounting a similar campaign against the mine. She's rallying residents in Aberdeen and the Pineview Valley, gathering petitions and taking pictures of the pristine land that will be irreversibly damaged if the mine goes through.

"It's absolutely prime grassland up there," she said. "They do (the mine) and they will destroy it."

The project will also empty Jacko Lake, a popular fishing spot, and disrupt migratory routes for moose and deer, said Madsen. And there's no telling the harm that will be done to area waterways when the project begins drawing water from Kamloops Lake - an amount Madsen believes will be two billion gallons a year.

She knows the environmental review is underway and, if deemed sound, the project will proceed. But Madsen can't see how the mine can be safe for the environment or residents.

"You can't mitigate against a project like this. No matter what you do, the waterways will be lost forever. The property will be lost forever," said Madsen.

The mine is weighing heavy on the mind of Kamloops Central Business Improvement Association director Gay Pooler. On the one hand, the financial spinoffs from 400-plus jobs are hard to pass up.

But Kamloops has worked hard to build a reputation as a fun, active and vibrant outdoor community, she said. It's won awards for it, including being named Best Bloomin' Community with Communities In Bloom. Pooler is worried the project will do the city's image harm.

"People come to live here because of the lifestyle," she said. "But you also want to have a vibrant economy."

She wants to know what can be done to diminish the noise and pollution that comes from having the project so close to town. She said Kamloops struggled for years with the image of being a mill town because Domtar is right in the city.

"You have to have the business side, but it has to work for everybody," said Pooler. "You can't just blindly look at the jobs side. You have to look at both sides."

Aberdeen resident Carolyn Dymond is having a hard time looking at the economic prospects of the mine. A recent GPS measurement put the mine 2.5 kilometres from her home, and she's not happy about it.

She believes noise and dust will wash over her home, making it unpleasant to be outside. And the fun she has hiking and biking in the grasslands will be lost forever, she said.

Residents already have a problem with groundwater seeping into their basement. Dymond wonders what all the blasting and digging will do to underground streams and if more water will invade homes.

"If it's a broken pipe, it's covered by insurance. If it's groundwater, buyer beware," she said.

These things play on Schleiermacher's mind, too. He's worried protests from the community will fall on deaf ears and the project will move ahead. But, like Madsen, he has to put up a fight.

If he loses, Schleiermacher said he might have to change his plans about growing old in Kamloops and move. He's sure a lot of other Aberdeen residents will do the same.

"What's the economic benefit of that?" he wondered.

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