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CERCA, Western Stevedoring at odds over estuary rezoning

This drone photo from CERCA shows where industry meets the estuary in Cowichan Bay. - File photo
This drone photo from CERCA shows where industry meets the estuary in Cowichan Bay.
— image credit: File photo

A dispute has developed between a local environmental group and a number of companies operating in Cowichan Bay.

Members of the Cowichan Estuary Restoration & Conservation Association are taking issue with a rezoning application for a section of the bay where the Westcan Terminal is situated.

CERCA's Goetz Schuerholz said if efforts by Western Stevedoring to rezone a number of Crown leases on properties it controls around the terminal are successful, the doors could soon be wide open to a lot more heavy manufacturing and its related pollution in Cowichan Bay, which could play havoc with its fragile ecosystem.

But spokespeople for Western Stevedoring, a diversified stevedoring, terminal and logistics company with operations throughout B.C., state that the only purpose for the rezoning application is to amend the current zoning to allow its tenant, Pacific Industrial Marine, to continue the operation that the company has had in place since 1990.

Pacific Industrial Marine, which currently employs more than 50 skilled workers at its site in Cowichan Bay, specializes in all aspects of marine and bridge construction.

PIM recently received a letter from the Cowichan Valley Regional District notifying the company that its current zoning doesn't comply with all of its activities at the site, which led to the rezoning request.

A statement from the company also says the Cowichan Estuary Environmental Management Plan designates the site for commercial and industrial activity.

"We're looking to finally formalize the operation and amend the zoning to reflect the current use of the site," said Sharon Horsburgh, a consultant with Bayshore Planning Services, who are assisting Western Stevedoring on the rezoning application.

"Nothing is being proposed for this area in regards to adding more industry. In fact, the plans are for one of the lease areas that was once used for log storage to be converted to conservation purposes, and for the removal of petroleum storage facilities as a permitted use here."

But Schuerholz warned that if more commercial activity is successful in gaining a foothold in the environmentally fragile Cowichan Bay, it could throw the region "back to the dark ages."

"It would take us back to the time when we didn't know better and allowed things to happen, such as massive infilling to create [Westcan Terminal] and access road which would never have been permitted in this day and age," Schuerholz said.

"The Cowichan Estuary Environmental Management Plan came into effect in response to alarming concerns around the dramatic environmental degradation of the estuary at that time. Declining fish stocks, shellfish closures, dwindling bird populations, and the disappearance of eel grass have all been caused by a booming logging industry in the estuary."

Schuerholz said that now, almost 40 years after that era in these days of climate change and growing biodiversity loss, to step back and "create a monster" that will be even more difficult to control "can't be tolerated".

"Alternative and properly designated sites for heavy industry are available within the CVRD that could easily accommodate Pacific Industrial Marine's operations without any job losses, and that would have less environmental impacts," he said.

But Tys Pool, a supervisor at PIM, said the company has not received any environmental complaints in its 27 years of operation in the bay.

"There is no discharge in Cowichan Bay from our operation, and we keep the place tidy and recycle as much as we can," he said.

"We're as environmentally friendly as can be and try to adhere to all bylaws. We're an ocean-based company and it would [not] make sense to relocate to another area without easy ocean access."

Alan Moore, one of Western Stevedoring's operations managers for the Island, said the company has done much to assist with local environmental causes, including taking part in trail work with CERCA over the years, and recently helping Cowichan Tribes with its efforts to remove a dead humpback whale from the bay to prepare for display purposes.

"We're also fed up waiting for the federal government to table its derelict vessel law and we intend to soon remove three wrecks from the bay ourselves," Moore said.

"We've always been great stewards of Cowichan Bay."

Ian Morrison, chairman of the CVRD's electoral area services committee, which will consider the application before it goes before the district's board of directors, said the application for rezoning the Crown land parcels is still in its early stages.

He said the application must first be considered by the CVRD's advisory planning committee for Area D at its meeting in mid April, and letters must be sent to various agencies that would be impacted by the rezoning applications, including local fire departments and Island Health, for their input into the process.

"If all the ducks are in a row, the rezoning application could be before the electoral area services committee by mid May," Morrison said.

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