Lots of opinions on both sides of the controversial rezoning issue in Cowichan Bay were expressed at a lengthy public hearing on March 12.
It has become such an emotional issue for many that police were brought in to oversee the large crowd in case there were any problems but, despite tension in the Heritage Room at the Cowichan Community Centre in Duncan, people kept calm and they were not needed.
Dozens of workers from the companies operating where the Westcan Terminal is situated in Cowichan Bay and their supporters wore reflective work vests in solidarity with their cause.
Those against the rezoning application demanded that an independent environmental assessment be completed before the Cowichan Valley Regional District makes any final decisions, while those in support of the rezoning said industrial activity had been ongoing at the site for decades with no negative environmental impacts on the bay.
Ian Morrison, chairman of the Cowichan Valley Regional District, said the meeting was a success.
“A lot of people came to the hearing with something to share, and we heard a wide range of opinions,” he said.
“A lot of these people pointed out that they had never spoken before in a public setting, so it was a good exercise in local government. All the information that we gathered at the meeting, including submissions, will now be reviewed by staff. I have no time frame as to when a staff report will be tabled.”
In a tight 5-4 vote on Feb. 27, the CVRD’s board gave the first two readings to the rezoning application for a number of Crown leases on properties where the Westcan Terminal is situated, making the public hearing mandatory.
Western Stevedoring controls the properties and stated when it first started the rezoning process more than two years ago that its main purpose is to amend the current zoning to allow its tenant, Pacific Industrial Marine, to continue the operation that the company has had in place for years.
But members of the Cowichan Estuary Restoration & Conservation Association and other environmental groups are taking issue with the rezoning application, fearing that 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.
Brad Eshleman, president of Western Stevedoring, said the company has been leasing the property for more than 30 years, and there have been no environmental issues in that time.
He said the company has been working for almost three years for the rezoning, and has been open and transparent at all stages of the process.
“We want to protect jobs and continue dealing with environmental issues in the estuary,” Eshleman said.
“There are a lot of skilled trade jobs at the terminal and the workers live in the Valley and support their communities.”
Carol Hartwig, a retired biologist, said metal manufacturing can do a lot of damage to the bay, and such industrial activities are best done on land, away from water, where they can be managed.
“What about plans to eat shellfish out of the bay by 2020?” she asked.
“I’m asking that the environment minister do his job and prepare a proper environmental assessment of this proposed rezoning.”
Bruce Sampson said Pacific Industrial Marine is one of the largest employers in the Cowichan Valley, and has a significant impact on the local economy.
He asked those opposed to the rezoning if any of them have actually gone out to the Westcan Terminal and talked to Brian Thacker, PIM’s owner, and his team on the issues.
Sampson also pointed out all the work that has been done by them to help the environment in the bay over the years.
“This has been a working harbour for more than 100 years, long before those houses were built on the hill,” Sampson said.
“I think it’s disingenuous to buy homes there and then complain about the industry.”
Chris Richardson said the issue has been clouded with a lack of information, and misinformation.
“It’s a big issue and the board needs a full environmental assessment so that everyone can agree that due diligence was done,” he said.
“Without an independent environmental assessment, hostility and protests on both sides will continue.”
Crane operator and iron worker Jay Smith, pointed out that water flows downhill, so an environmental assessment of the bay would also have to include consideration of all the pollution and garbage that comes from other sources up river.
“There’s a policy at PIM that if you see any garbage in the water, you are required to pick it up,” he said.
“We also do regular clean ups of the whole area. As well, every time a boat breaks free in the bay, it seems it’s up to us to rescue it and I’ve rescued many over the years.”
Paul Rickard said the decision for the rezoning is now down to the opinions of the directors in the CVRD.
“What is your fear of an independent environmental assessment?” he asked the directors.
“This is not a time for individual directors to support other directors’ requests without questioning them. I ask you to use your own judgment and stand up for a better, science-based, decision on this issue.”