Snow is flying in the Jumbo Valley, covering both the rapidly constructed foundations of a ski lift and day lodge and the campsite where, throughout the summer, opponents have monitored activities at the site of a proposed all-season ski resort centred around four glaciers in the heart of the Kootenays.
For now, it’s a waiting game — no surprise to the many players on both sides of the controversial proposal who have been involved throughout the 24-year saga.
Glacier Resorts Ltd. is hoping the foundations, built in October, will prove to the provincial Environmental Assessment Office that significant progress has been made on construction of the billion-dollar proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort.
In 2004 the company was granted an environmental assessment certificate with 195 conditions. The certificate was renewed in 2009 and, under legislation, cannot be renewed again. For the certificate to become permanent, Glacier Resorts must show that the project was “substantially started” by Oct. 12.
Three days before that deadline, the Environmental Assessment Office wrote to Glacier Resorts saying the company was not in compliance with three pre-construction conditions, primarily relating to water quality and fish habitat monitoring. However, the warning about non-compliance does not have any direct bearing on the decision about whether the project has made significant progress, said an Environment Ministry spokesman.
The term “substantially started” is not defined in legislation. The Environmental Assessment Office will make a recommendation to Environment Minister Mary Polak, who will make the final decision.
“There is no set timeframe in which the minister must make the determination about whether a project was substantially started by the deadline,” said the ministry spokesman.
Until a decision is made, it is not only the weather that has put a stop to construction. The company has been warned not to continue work until a decision is made, although restoration work on the non-compliance problems is allowed.
A 10-centimetre snowfall in the Jumbo Valley means the “concrete slab” foundations are “out of sight, but not out of mind,” said retired mountain guide Arnor Larson, a tireless opponent of the resort proposal.
Larson has submitted a document and photos to the Environmental Assessment Office raising questions about the “unusual” quality of the foundation work on the day lodge and ski lift.
“Rush jobs often mean cutting corners, but it was still a surprise that, throughout the area covered by the forms, the ground was never properly leveled and compacted, nor was the necessary topping layer of fine aggregate material ever installed, leveled or compacted,” he wrote.
“Believing in foundations that have no foundation is like something out of Alice In Wonderland.”
Larson, armed with pages of photos and documentation, also has serious concerns with the location of the day lodge.
“As a professional mountain climbing guide since 1970, I stood there and had a thought that went like this — in the winter, when avalanche conditions are ripe, I would find the risk too high to set up my tent here for even one single night. Yet they are going to erect a permanent building here,” he said.
“Who the heck signed the paper saying this was a safe place to build?”
Larson pointed out in his submission that the site of the day lodge has changed from the original plans and the lodge doors at the new site would open on to “the aptly named Avalanche Meadow.” It is an area where, in 2009, a massive avalanche tore down a ski run.
The resort’s Master Plan calls for avalanche control measures, such as helicopter bombing potential avalanche sites, but critics such as renowned Canadian mountaineer and photographer Pat Morrow, who lives in the East Kootenays, does not believe the area can be made safe.
“As you get further and further into the proposed townsite, you are getting further and further into avalanche territory,” he said.
“No other resorts have base areas that are threatened as much as this.”
Growing concerns about building a day lodge adjacent to an avalanche path — even though proponent Oberto Oberti has said the buildings will be just outside the high-risk area — were taken up this week in Question Period by NDP leader John Horgan.
Jumbo Glacier Resort specifically committed to building residential and commercial structures outside avalanche zones, Horgan said.
“Yet the Jumbo Glacier Resort has put the only foundation that they’ve been able to pour to this point in time, their day lodge, right in a Class 4 avalanche zone,” he said.
“For the minister’s edification, a Class 4 avalanche zone is really, really bad. In fact, it says ‘a Class 4 could destroy a railway car, large truck, several buildings and forests up to four hectares.’ It’s a big deal.”
However Polak, who recently visited the area and met with the Ktunaxa First Nation, rejected calls from Horgan for her to immediately withdraw the permit.
“It is very important that we allow the process to unfold, that we allow First Nations to respond appropriately, providing us with that information,” she said.
Robyn Duncan of Wildsight, a non-profit group that has led much of the opposition to the proposal, said Wildsight has been working with Ecojustice to make last-minute submissions to the Environmental Assessment Office and, if the Jumbo Resort project gets the go-ahead or, if there is an attempt to again extend the certificate, a legal challenge might be considered.
The proposal is already being challenged by the Ktuxana First Nation, which is appealing a B.C Supreme Court decision that the consultation was reasonable and the resort would not substantially interfere with Ktunaxa spiritual beliefs and practices. The area in which the resort is planned is known to the Ktunaxa as Qat’muk, the place where the Grizzly Bear Spirit was born, goes to heal itself and returns to the spirit world.
The West Kootenay EcoSociety is also challenging the incorporation of the Jumbo Glacier Mountain Resort Municipality, a municipality with no residents which is being supported with taxpayer dollars.
Others who have taken part in the annual protest and monitoring camps are watching carefully and are ready to spring into action again if it proves necessary.
“I have been working to keep Jumbo Wild for over 15 years,” said KL Kivi, who spent much of her summer at the monitoring camp.
“This is the largest unroaded wilderness in southern B.C. and our lives are inextricably linked to the health of this place. It would fracture the spine of an incredibly important ecological region,” she said.
Tommaso Oberti, vice president of Pheidias Project Management, who has acted as spokesman for previous stories, did not respond to questions.
However, a letter written by Oberto Oberti, on behalf of Glacier Resorts, to Jumbo Municipality Mayor Gregory Deck, underlines his confidence that the project will go ahead.
“In the most unlikely event that physical and legal disruptions do not permit the start of construction, the government will have an obligation to extend or remove the deadline, as in any construction case of force majeure,” he wrote in February.
“I am certain that, in this case, Glacier will seek legal advice and legal routes to ensure that its rights are not compromised.”
Photo: Lucas Jmief, Lucasimagephoto.ca
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