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Questionable Development Leads to Delay in Jumbo Glacier Resort Approval

A provincial delay in deciding whether construction of Jumbo Glacier Resort has substantially started is giving hope to opponents that close scrutiny will lead to the province yanking the resort’s environmental assessment certificate.

“It seems impossible to me that a minister with even the slightest self-respect could look at this and proceed with it,” said Norm Macdonald, Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA.

In order to keep the environmental assessment certificate, first issued in 2004, Glacier Resorts Ltd. had to prove by mid-October that substantial progress had been made on construction of the billion-dollar, all-season ski resort in the remote heart of the Purcell Mountains.

Concrete slab foundations were poured in October for the day lodge, lift and service building, but the day lodge was moved from the original plans to an area that a report by Meiklejohn Architects concluded is outside the land tenure. The new location also puts the lodge directly in the path of high-magnitude, high-frequency avalanches, according to local mountain guides and RK Heliski, a company that has operated in the area for 44 years.

A condition of the environmental assessment certificate is that structures should be located completely outside the avalanche hazard area.

Avalanche concerns erupted in the legislature in November and, at that time, Environment Minister Mary Polak said she believed the proposed resort buildings were outside the avalanche zone.

But, in a letter sent to Glacier Resorts Dec. 11, the Environmental Assessment Office asked for a new engineering avalanche risk evaluation and a zoning plan based on possible impact pressures from avalanches.

The letter, from Environmental Assessment Office policy and compliance manager Autumn Cousins, says the zoning plans should be led by an engineer who is a member of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

The new evaluation is in addition to a report provided by Glacier Resorts to the Environmental Assessment Office in November that concludes that extensive mitigation, with avalanche control by explosives, will be needed to avoid danger at the day lodge.

“Although no damaging avalanche has reached the lodge site, a larger avalanche than had occurred in the past or an avalanche with an irregular flow direction could hit the lodge,” it says.

But professional mountain climbing guide Arnor Larson, who has taken visitors into the area for four decades, said the company doesn’t seem to have considered that avalanches have to be bombed from helicopters and the wild storms in the area frequently ground helicopters.

“Sometimes a big storm can last multiple days and the helicopters can’t get up,” he said.

“In my opinion, from being a guide in the area since the early 1970s, I certainly wouldn’t tell guests that they can manage the avalanche issue there.”

It is not only the pressure of the snow, but the wind from an avalanche can severely damage buildings, he said.

Renowned mountain climber and photographer Pat Morrow, who lives in the nearby East Kootenay community of Wilmer, has been trying to raise the alarm about avalanche hazards for several years.

“Above and beyond the location of the lodge, there’s also the vulnerability of the gondola towers from the lodge to the head of the Jumbo Valley that are in an even more threatened position than the lodge,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Larson, like others, is puzzled why, at the last minute, Glacier Resorts would change the location of the day lodge.

In October a pole stuck in the ground showed the lodge in a damp, forested area, but it has now moved closer to the open meadow area, where avalanche tracks are etched into the surrounding mountains.

Macdonald believes the day lodge concrete pad was laid in the new location because it was easier to build.

“All they are trying to do is put something there and they didn’t think there would be any tremendous amount of scrutiny,” he said.

Questions were also raised in the Meiklejohn report about other changes to the resort plans, ranging from parking to sewers, that must be made if the day lodge has moved.

In addition, the report questions why the slab has been laid without roughed in sewer drainage piping.

“No evidence was visible, either above the slab or at the building perimeter (e.g trenching) that any of the rough-ins that may have been required had been installed,” says the report, which was prepared for the Ktunaxa Nation Council.

The Ktunaxa Nation is vehemently opposed to the plans for a 6,000-bed resort on land they consider sacred.

Tommaso Oberti, vice-president of the resort’s project management group, did not reply to questions from DeSmog, but told the Vancouver Sun that the company is doing more detailed avalanche zone mapping and will provide a response to the government shortly.

Image Credit: Jumbo Glacier Resort

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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