It was a fatigued Stuart Andrews that walked into my office one morning a few weeks ago. He showed up late to a scheduled meeting because he was tied up responding to phone calls and e-mails relating to gravel pits.
It’s been an exhausting battle that’s seen Andrews be one of the lone active voices against gravel pit development near Revelstoke. Six years ago, he attempted to block the expansion of an Interoute gravel pit off Westside Road, across the river from Columbia Park. Even after it was approved, he kept up his battle to ensure the conditions placed on the pit were met.
Last year, he took up arms against another application by Revelstoke Sand & Gravel for a quarry near Interoute’s pit. Then, earlier this year, Interoute applied to expand its existing Westside Road pit by another 40 acres, though it says it doesn’t plan to start work until 2028.
“The last few weeks, it’s wearing me down, especially now that I’m fighting three gravel pits,” Andrews told me. “It was OK when I was fighting one, but now I’m fighting three.”
His concerns have been publicized in the past. He says the crystalline silica produced in the pits is a health hazard, they’re noisy, unsightly and that the Ministry of Mines doesn’t do enough to enforce permit conditions. They’re concerns expressed by gravel pit opponents all over the world.
Perhaps most significantly, he feels the ones off Westside Road, across from Columbia Park, are too close.
“I’m not trying to stop gravel, we need gravel,” he said. “The ones further up Highway 23 North, like Speer’s pit and the Kelly Pit are fine. I have no problems with those.”
There are 15 active gravel pits in the Revelstoke area, and two pending applications for new ones. The total disturbance, according to the Ministry of Mines, is just about 175 hectares. That doesn’t include the big ones operated by highway contractor Emcon for the Ministry of Transportation.
According to various sources, aggregates – which includes sand, gravel, crushed stone, and more – are the most mined materials in the world. They’re used on roads, in construction and by industry. According to the B.C. Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (BCSSGA), about 50,000,000 metric tons of aggregates are used in B.C. every year. That’s almost 11 tons per person.
As a result, the Ministry of Mines takes gravel extraction very seriously as an economic necessity and takes great pains to ensure it’s readily available. Local governments that wish to restrict aggregate production need to get any regulations approved by the ministry, something that is not easy to do.
PHOTO: Bill Dickey is a director with the Fraser Valley Regional District.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Fraser Valley, where the Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD) has been attempting to pass a bylaw regulating gravel pits for more than a decade.
“The provincial government looks at gravel extraction as an economic necessity,” said Bill Dickey, a regional director for the past 14 years. “Their view is if the regional districts don’t approve mining permits, then they need that gravel inventory. They will give them provincial permits regardless.
“You end up with gravel mines where they shouldn’t be.”
In the Fraser Valley locals rose up against gravel pits near their homes. There were protests, blockades and more. Gravel pit operators were unsuccessfully take to court.
“Some people have termed it the gravel wars,” said Dickey. “About 10 years ago we got together with the ministry, and industry and tried to come up with a cooperative agreement where we would manage gravel extraction.”
They came up with a three-zone system. Areas near communities would see gravel pits blocked; areas a certain distance away would have certain restrictions placed on them, and areas further out would be able to operate with impunity. The work, dubbed the Aggregate Pilot Project, was started in 2004. It’s been a tumultuous process that’s required years of work. A bylaw was passed in 2014, but it was rejected by the ministry. In January, a revised version went back to FVRD directors. It still needs to get approval from the province. “This isn’t the process for a person that isn’t patient,” said Dickey.
Meanwhile, the regional district has been criticized by both residents and industry. The BCSSGA pulled out of the process in 2013, and letters have been written by citizens accusing the regional district of selling themselves to the industry.
“We find ourselves caught in the centre,” said Dickey. “If we were try to bring in legislation which is too restrictive, then the provincial ministries that have to sign it off wouldn’t be in agreement because they feel we aren’t making a viable situation for the gravel industry.
“At the same time we have local residents that are opposed.”
Despite all the issues, Dickey feels the work is better than the alternative, where residents and industry butt heads. He feels the proposed bylaw will create set rules that should end the so-called “gravel wars.”
“I’m still hopeful we’re going to come up with something here that’s workable. The real world is a messy place. Do your best and hope this will work out,” he said. “We still have huge opposition from our communities, and trying to placate those people is a very challenging issue.”
PHOTO:Stuart Andrews addresses council on gravel pits in August 2015. ~ Revelstoke Review file photo
Stuart Andrews wants to see something similar to the Aggregate Pilot Project implemented in Revelstoke. There was a short-lived attempt to establish a soil-removal bylaw in 2011, but it never made it out of committee.
The other thing he wants is for the Ministry of Mines to do more to enforce permit conditions, particularly around dust control. Last summer, he sent me a large file of photos of dust coming off Interoute’s gravel pit. He says he’s sent them to the Ministry of Mines and asked them to conduct more inspections.
“They don’t enforce the permit conditions, which state all dust must be contained at the pit,” said Andrews.
Corey Rokosh, the manager of Interoute’s Westside Road pit, maintains that they have the best dust control measures in the area. He has also questioned the source of the dust in the photos, saying it could be from any one of the many pits in the area, or the regional landfill site. He feels his pit is unfairly targeted, when others have much worse dust control.
The concern is that the dust contains crystalline silica — a known class one carcinogen that causes lung damage and other health problems, and is considered a serious hazard to any people involved in work that includes crushing rock. The health risks to workers are well documented, though the risks to the general public are not well known.
A report by the World Health Organization on crystalline silica says, “Regarding exposure to ambient quartz in the general environment, a benchmark dose analysis predicted that the silicosis risk for a continuous 70-year lifetime exposure to 0.008 mg/m3 (estimated high crystalline silica concentration in US metropolitan areas) is less than 3% for healthy individuals not compromised by other respiratory diseases or conditions and for ambient environment.”
Dust control was one of the key conditions put on the Westside Road permit, but Andrews says the conditions aren’t enforced.
Inspection reports by the Ministry of Mines show they have visited the pit at least once a year since 2010. They indicate concerns about dust, and at least one report says a visit was in response to a public complaint.
A July 2013 report raised issues about dust control, and the inspector says they ordered work to stop and called a meeting about the necessity of dust control.
“It was made very clear that it was the responsibility of everyone working in the pit, that when dust was becoming air borne then action had to be taken to correct the problem,” the inspector wrote.
Another report from September 2015, when crushing was taking place, stated: “It was noisy adjacent to the pit berm, but the sound diminished one you stepped away from the berm. There was a small amount of dust coming off some of the stockpiles… We discussed keeping the stockpiles within the confines of the pit to reduce dust and noise.”
The report also noted the presence of a calcium crust on the piles. It also ordered Interoute to produce a reclamation plan by April 30, 2016.
The ministry generally doesn’t take any punitive measures in response to violations. It simply expects the pit operator to comply with requests.
Andrews wants to see ongoing dust monitoring in place at the site.
PHOTO: Dust blows off a gravel pit off Westside Road in this undated photo provided by gravel pit opponent Stuart Andrews.
Beyond concerns about dust, Stuart Andrews has wonders about how permits are issued. He still wants to know why Interoute was given a cutting permit to log the trees on its Westside Road mine before it was given a mining permit.
He’s also concerned that one mining permit was give out for a pit just behind the Frontier Restaurant, on the edge of Mount Revelstoke National Park. It’s on private land, but he’s surprised that permission was given out without him noticing; given his vigilance on the issue, it is surprising.
For gravel pits on Crown land, applicants first have to get a land tenure from the Ministry of Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations. They then have to get a mine permit from the Ministry of Mines. Other stakeholders are contacted but there’s generally little they can do to stop it. In the case of pits within city boundaries — any land zoned RR60, like Westside Road, allows for gravel extractions. City council’s best control is through the issuance of development permits, though even then they are limited in saying no depending on the regulations of the permit area.
Jody Lownds, the president of the North Columbia Environmental Society, called it “procedurally a mess.”
The NCES wants to see active monitoring of gravel pits, particularly when it comes to air quality. Revelstoke has been without an air quality monitoring station for several years now. Andrews has asked that one be placed on the roof of Columbia Park Elementary.
“With all these applications for new ones, I think there should be a moratorium on new gravel pits in that area until someone has some good sense of the cumulative effects of what it’s doing to the air quality in the neighbourhood,” said Lownds.
Kathy Wagar, an official with the Ministry of Mines, said they are looking at putting a dust management plan in place that would encompass all the mines along the Columbia River north of Revelstoke.
However, she said the ministry doesn’t consider the concentration of pits when approving new ones.
“We don’t have the legislative tool to do so,” Wagar said. “It’s based on merit.”
It’s rare for a gravel pit application to get turned down, but it does happen. In 2013, Lake Country council in the Okanagan denied a development permit for a gravel operation.
Stuart Andrews isn’t alone in his concerns about gravel pits near the community. Though it does feel like he’s the lone fighter in this crusade, the NCES said it is concerned about pits near neighbourhoods.
“There’s definitely valid concerns with air quality monitoring and the crystalline silica dust being blown over a residential area,” said Jody Lownds. “The area is a wildlife corridor part of the year. There’s concern it won’t be reclaimed to what it should be.”
I contacted several people who live across the river from the Westside Road pit. Two said dust was an issue, another said it wasn’t, and Heather Duchman from the Revelstoke Golf Club said dust wasn’t a problem for them.
No decision has been yet on last year’s application by Revelstoke Sand & Gravel for a gravel pit on Westside Road. They have also applied to expand their pit up the Jordan River, and Interoute wants to expand its Westside Road pit. The latter application says they won’t start mining the area until 2028, and Corey Rokosh told the Review they were making the application now to ensure access to a gravel source for the long-term.
Meanwhile, Andrews is continuing his efforts. He’s exchanged thousands of e-mails and spent thousands of hours pursuing the gravel pits. He appealed his property assessment this year, arguing successfully that the gravel pits negatively impacted his home value. It has cost him personally.
“Because of stress and depression caused by this gravel pit, I had to give up work,” he said.
“You’re never going to win against the Ministry of Mines. I thought five years ago it was possible to win against them but it’s not. They just rubber stamp and approve because they’re mandated by the government to approve all mining, and gravel pits come under mines.”