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Lake Country's Gravel Pit Quandary

When District of Lake Country councilors voted no to a proposed gravel pit in Lake Country at this week's Lake Country council meeting, they said no to what has become a large and important industry in the Central Okanagan as well as a hot-button topic amongst the public.

Gravel pits. Even the company that had applied for the permit to operate the new gravel pit, admits they are controversial and are not pretty.

But the demand for the material that is mined (yes they are mines, governed by the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines) is huge and is essential in the construction of roads, railways, schools and infrastructure as well as more specialized industrial uses such as sewage filtration, agriculture and erosion prevention.

In a 2013 report commissioned by the Central Okanagan Regional District on supply and demand for aggregate, the report states "the only substance people consume more of than concrete is water; every year one ton of concrete is produced for each person on earth.”

So when a family-run, Okanagan operation that has been working gravel pits in the Central Okanagan for more than 20-years appeared before Lake Country council looking for approval to open a new gravel pit bordering the new Highway 97 in Lake Country, it was no surprise that the council chambers were packed, with nearby residents, business owners, a mining consultant as well as the applicant.

What followed was an hour long trip through municipal politics that ended with Lake Country saying no to another gravel pit, residents claiming victory and the applicant calling it short-sighted.

•••

7:12 p.m. As with any development application that needs a permit from council, Lake Country planner Mark Koch presents a recommendation to the six councilors and mayor sitting around the council table. With regard to the gravel pit—known as the Witzke pit—staff is recommending council turn the application down. The municipality is one of three levels of government that will ultimately decide the fate of the application to open the new pit which is located within the Agriculture Land Reserve and also governed by the Ministry of Mines. Koch tells councillors there is plenty for them to ponder as they think about the new application.

"This is undeniably a high impact proposal and an interesting topic in the community," says Koch. "The regional district has concluded that gravel is a critical resource for the regional economy and important for developing areas. This is about weighing the importance of the resource with the community impact. It's tough to balance priorities and we can see the impact on the aesthetic and visual components (of gravel pits)."

Koch notes there are number of gravel pits in various stages of operation in Lake County and says reclamation of pits has been problematic. With that he lets council know that staff is not supporting the application and hands the meeting over to the mayor.

7:20 p.m. At Lake Country council, the public gets plenty of chance to speak and there is no shortage of people waiting to chime in when mayor James Baker asks for public comment on the application. First up is mining consultant Eric Beresford, who is hired by the applicant (Interior Gravel Products) and steps forward for the first of two times at the meeting. He tells councilors that the gravel pits that are currently being used by the applicant will be out of their current supply within a year and reclamation work to turn the pit back into agriculture land cannot take place until the mining operation is complete. He talks about the concerns about reclamation of gravel pits and says the work to restore the pits will be done when the reserves are depleted but can't be done while active mining is taking place.

And he says when it comes to an ugly scar on the landscape, folks need to look no further than the new highway that was recently opened.

"The province took 2.5 million cubic metres of very good sand and gravel out in two years," says Beresford. "What you will see from the lake is the highway scar. That will never be reclaimed. This pit will be reclaimed after seven years. It will be greened up. This is needed in the area."

7:36 p.m. "I'm sorry. I'm nervous and I'm angry," says Lake Country resident Colleen Skawronik as she and Linda Bauer stand at the podium together to oppose the application. They live on Old Mission Road near the proposed pit and say it's a no-go as far as they are concerned.

"We really have concerns about it," she continues. "The (new) highway has gone through and the value of the property has gone up. With this it's going to go down the drain. The noise, the extreme dust...this is not a truck route. The school bus drives that route. It's hazardous. It's just not going to work."

7:41 p.m. Oyama businessman Allan Gatzke of Gatzke Orchards is next to the podium and even with staff recommending councilors turn the proposal down, he isn't convinced council will listen. He tells council that the pit will have a negative impact on his nearby peach trees and says Oyama shouldn't be a land of gravel pits, despite the fact the CORD report puts most of the available gravel in the Central Okanagan within or near Lake Country and the fact that he routinely buys gravel from the applicant.

"I enjoy buying the gravel," he says. "It's nice and convenient. I can go get it in a truck without a license. I want that to continue but I cannot stand up and not be heard. I don't think the future of Oyama, as a land of gravel pits, is one that I would be proud of. This is one of those junctures where you can make a difference on the future of what our community looks like."

7:59 p.m. Mining consultant Eric Beresford comes to the podium again, asking council to look to the future need for gravel pits in the area. Much concern has been raised about the fact the current pits haven't been reclaimed and are an eye sore but Beresford says reclamation work can't begin before the mining operation is complete. He says the company has large bonds with the Ministry of Mines, the ALR and a bond with Lake Country, ensuring reclamation work will be done.

"You can only reclaim when you are finished," he says. "They are all one year away and then they will be graded and smoothed over and greened up. This is private land, valuable land that is not just going to be left. Bear in mind gravel pits are temporary, it's a six to seven year project with reclamation at the end."

8 p.m. After the public has had its say, councilors are free to comment and it's clear which way the vote will go. Coun. Penny Gambell's comments sum up the general feel around the table.

"We have many pits that we have all looked at for many, many, many years," she says. "While you say reclamation is going to happen, I know as councilor I am not prepared to say yes to another gravel pit until I see that reclamation."

8:13 p.m. An hour after it started, the application from Interior Gravel is denied by council, putting an end to one company's bid to keep working in Lake Country in the future, at least for the time being. But with gravel pit mining becoming a bigger and bigger industry, the question is sure to come back to municipal councils around the region.

The Reaction

As an application for a new gravel pit moved through Lake Country council and was eventually turned down this week, the owner of Interior Gravel Products watched quietly and likely pondered what his next step would be.

Fred Thiessen along with his two brothers, own and operate the company that was started by his dad in Westbank in the early 1990s as Westbank Aggregate and is now called Interior Gravel Products.

Thiessen says within a year the two gravel pits he is mining in Lake Country will be depleted and he is already not able to bid on new jobs because there is not enough supply.

Calling the Lake Country decision short-sighted, he also said he understands the public perception of the industry he works in.

"I understand the community outcry, I empathize with the land and home-owners," he said. "I know how it works. We're not desired. We're probably the biggest protested industry there is. But everybody needs it. All these people cry that they don't want it in their backyard. But what they don't understand is the trucks are going to come from somewhere. The next closest pit is on the other side of Kalamalka Lake. Is having 4,000 to 5,000 truck-loads traveling through Oyama, through school zones, a better alternative than having me right beside a major highway?"

Lake Country councillors and residents expressed concern about reclamation work on the current gravel pits. As part of getting approval to operate a gravel pit from the Ministry of Mines, operators such as the Thiessen's have to put up a bond that is designed to ensure a company restores the pit. Normally the land is leveled, topsoil is placed back onto it, preparing it for future development.

Thiessen says he routinely puts up $20,000 bonds to the Mines Ministry but says it's more than just the bond that makes him reclaim a gravel pit when it's life is over.

"It's not a matter of do I just want to walk away," he said. "It's my reputation, my future and my family's future. It's not as simple as they think. They say let's wait and see what reclamation looks like. But it's regulated by a government body to make sure it happens. We've been doing this since 1991 and we've never lost a bond due to non-reclamation."

Thiessen says the irony of being turned down is that one of his biggest customers has been the District of Lake Country as he says he has provided gravel to the municipality for virtually all of their capital projects. And he also sells to many local residents.

"They said there is no proof of demand but they (Lake Country) are my biggest customer right now," he said. Most of my work this year has been in Lake Country. "We get locals here all the time and all they want is price, price, price. They want it to be cheaper."

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