Two rural Manitoba councillors are moving forward with an independent referendum they say will analyze how many residents are in favour or opposed to a proposed silica mine that has been at the centre of a heated controversy in the RM of Springfield, while the mayor and the RM say they do not support, and will have nothing to do with that referendum.

Plans have been in the works for about four years for Calgary-based Sio Silica to build a silica mine and processing plant near the community of Vivian in the RM of Springfield, east of Winnipeg. The project calls for up to 7,700 wells over 24 years to extract ultra-pure silica sand, which can be used in the production of solar panels, batteries, and semiconductors.

But those plans have been met with fierce resistance from some who live in the RM, due to concerns the project posed a serious threat to the quality of groundwater in the area.

Springfield’s previous council voted against construction of the facility, but that decision was overruled by the provincial Municipal Board, which told Springfield they must amend their bylaws to move the project forward.

A June 13 council meeting, when councillors were supposed to vote on zoning and bylaw changes for the project, was adjourned early after several citizens confronted Springfield councillors, leaving Springfield Mayor Patrick Therrien to say he was concerned for the safety of some on council. RCMP were also called to the meeting but there were no arrests.

A final decision now lies with the province and is dependent on a Clean Environment Commission (CEC) Report the province received in June, and Environment and Climate Minister Kevin Klein promised the province would take its time to study the report before making its decision.

But Springfield councillors Mark Miller and Andy Kuczynski, who have both been vocal critics of the project, say that while they wait for the province’s decision, they will hold the referendum which allows people to vote by phone.

Miller also claimed the “technology” being used will not allow people to vote multiple times from the same phone number, so they hope to get “as accurate a picture as possible” of how residents feel about the mine.

Miller said he and Kuczynski asked during a recent council meeting that the RM hold an official referendum on the mine, but said they did not get the majority of council’s support, so they decided to move forward with one independently.

“We know that this referendum is not binding, but at the same time it will give residents an opportunity to have their voices heard, and let the province as well as candidates in the upcoming election know if they support this,” Miller said.

But Springfield Mayor Patrick Therrien said he and some other council members continue to be frustrated with the two councillors for efforts to oppose the project at the municipal level, when ultimately the final decision will come down to the province.

“These types of things just do not do us any good, because while we are waiting for a decision we have many other things as a council and as an RM that we need to be working on, and we can’t let this take up all our focus, because then nothing else gets done and more and more that is what’s happening,” Therrien said.

He said he also questions how accurate the results of the referendum will be, because it will not be run through official RM channels, and will allow people to vote who aren’t residents or property owners in the community.

“These types of things can be skewed in a number of ways, so I just don’t know how accurate it will be, or even know what they are going to do with this information once they have it,” he said.

The RM also released an official statement last week saying they oppose the referendum.

“The subject of a referendum and/or survey was discussed with council previously and although a vote was not held, the majority of council did not feel that the idea should be pursued,” the statement reads.

“The protection of groundwater is a priority for all council, however the decision of whether the proposed Vivian Sand Project proceeds is in the hands of the Provincial Government. Council trusts that the comments and concerns brought forward at CEC hearings will be seriously considered before the provincial government makes any final decision.”

Residents can now call to vote either in favour of or opposition to the project at 204-515-1252 from Aug. 13 to Sept. 18 at 8 p.m.

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

By Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Aug 15, 2023 at 16:17

This item reprinted with permission from    The Sun    Winnipeg, Manitoba
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