Highlands residents gird for fight against quarry proposal

Residents of the District of Highlands will do whatever it takes to stop the creation of a new rock quarry just off Millstream Road, says the chair of the Highlands District Community Association.

“Let’s put it this way: They will never get on the land. They will never get on the land, we will ensure that,” Scott Richardson said. “We’re in this for the long haul. We will look at every recourse.”

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When asked what kind of action the group might be willing to take, Richardson said: “You can leave that to your readers’ imaginations.”

The quarry is the proposal of Victoria-based O.K. Industries. The company bought the 26-acre property in 2015 for $4.2 million and applied to have it rezoned to accommodate commercial and light industrial activity from its current green-belt designation.

Highlands denied the rezoning in 2016, prompting O.K. Industries to apply to the province for a mines permit that would allow a quarry. The application has been amended to reduce the size of the quarry to 16 acres, among other changes, and it remains under review by the province.

The changes are immaterial to Richardson, who said the concern is having more industrial development near an actively used aquifer that supplies the wells of most Highlands residents.

“People are very protective of the Sooke reservoir for good reason. That’s a precious area that provides the most valuable resource on Earth,” he said.

“What most people who live in the city and on piped water have a hard time getting their heads around is the groundwater underlying the proposed O.K. Industries’ project is our Sooke reservoir.”

O.K. Industries has said the project will go forward only if risks to groundwater and the impact to surface water can be mitigated.

Mel Sangha, the firm’s general manager, said it wanted to work with the district and residents from the start, rather than going through a mines permitting process that does not take into account public input.

Sangha said they initially looked at the land because Highlands’ official community plan designates it as suitable for commercial and light industrial activity.

That would require the land to be levelled, he said. “To create level land for commercial and industrial use, you have to remove the rock.”

O.K. Industries proposes to turn that rock into aggregate — used for building roads, sidewalks and myriad other things — on site. At the end of the quarry’s life (estimated at 15 to 20 years), there would be level ground for commercial use.

Highlands would benefit from the increased tax dollars were the site used for industrial purposes, Sangha said, adding that the site is surrounded by contaminated lands, an active landfill and an active quarry.

“If you were ever going to put a quarry on a site, this is where you would do it,” he said.

Richardson disagrees, arguing the official community plan is out of date and needs revision.

And to those who think it’s an issue of NIMBY-ism, he has a question: Why is everything in our backyard? The area already has a lot of industrial activity — quarries, aggregate plants and landfills filled with contaminated material, he said. “We have enough going on here over our aquifer.”

A quarry would mean years of blasting over an aquifer and adjacent to contaminated land, he said.

“When I hear that I ask: ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ ” he said with a sardonic laugh. “There’s no way this thing makes any sense.”

So far, Richardson said, the province has not responded to the community’s calls and letters.

The statutory decision-maker — a senior inspector of mines — doesn’t take into account things such as public protest or air and water quality, he said. “The statutory-decision maker’s only job is to determine if it’s technically feasible and safe to do.”

The Energy and Mines Ministry said it is taking the application seriously and will take steps to consider and weigh all relevant information and perspectives, including those of stakeholders, agencies and the District of Highlands.

Highlands Mayor Ken Williams said he would not comment on the file while it is under review, but said Highlands would consider all its options to appeal if the quarry is approved.

According to the province, either O.K. Industries or others can apply for a judicial review of any decision of the statutory decision-maker.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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