Manitoba’s environment and climate minister came under fire on Tuesday evening for the way the Progressive Conservative government has shepherded a proposal to drill thousands of wells for ultra-pure silica sand.
A 95-minute provincial election forum about climate and the environment placed rookie cabinet minister Kevin Klein on the hot seat over a pending decision about Calgary miner Sio Silica’s plan to extract up to 33 million tonnes of sand from a vast aquifer that sits about 50 metres below the surface of southeastern Manitoba.
The proposal, which the province has hailed as a potential catalyst for a multibillion-dollar investment by a German solar-panel manufacturer, awaits a licensing decision from officials in the provincial climate and environment ministry.
On Tuesday night, Manitoba Green Leader Janine Gibson and Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont took turns lambasting Klein and the PCs for allowing the Sio Silica proposal to progress this far, while Klein insisted he has no say in the decision. NDP environment critic Lisa Naylor largely stayed out of the fray.
Gibson, who is challenging Naylor in Winnipeg’s Wolseley constituency, accused the PC government of ignoring the potential of silica mining to diminish the quality of the Winnipeg Sandstone Aquifer, a source of drinking water for thousands of people living to the east and southeast of Winnipeg.
Late in the forum, Klein insisted he and other members of the PC cabinet won’t be making any determination about whether to allow the silica-mining proposal to proceed.
“We’re not trained and educated to make that decision,” Klein said.
“Speak for yourself,” retorted Gibson to applause from the audience of about 200 people at the forum, which was organized by 26 environmental groups.
After the forum, Gibson said she’s concerned Manitoba will grant Sio Silica an environmental licence under the condition that the company conduct more tests as it proceeds to drill mines and build a processing facility near Vivian, Man., in the Rural Municipality of Springfield.
“I’m very, very concerned they’re going to try and institute some gradual licensing,” she said, arguing Sio Silica should have been required to gather more data at the outset. “I don’t understand why they haven’t kicked this right out.”
Lamont said following the forum he does not believe any “sales pitch” about the safety of silica mining using what would be a novel approach: drilling thousands of small wells and extracting sand from each one for only days at a time.
“You’re talking about punching holes in an area bigger than the City of Winnipeg, over and over and over again. It’s like sticking straws in, and in every single one of those places, there’s a risk of contaminants going down,” the Liberal leader said.
Naylor said following the forum the NDP would follow the advice of provincial experts.
Klein, meanwhile, reserved most of his fire on Tuesday for Naylor. The Kirkfield Park MLA repeatedly ridiculed Manitoba New Democrats for promising a gas-tax holiday if they form a government this fall.
“What does the NDP want to do? Get rid of the gas tax: $4,000 for an EV vehicle. Four thousand dollars when you’re buying an F-150 Lightning, which is over $120,000, is not going to help that person make the decision,” Klein said.
Naylor, for her part, criticized the PC government for dragging its feet on developing solar power and electric-vehicle charging stations in Manitoba. She was a last-minute stand-in for NDP Leader Wab Kinew, who chose to meet with health-care officials instead of taking part in the forum.
Naylor dismissed the idea she was swapped in for Kinew to counter Gibson’s presence at the forum.
Throughout the forum, Lamont was the only candidate who spoke largely off the top of his head instead of reading off notes. He spoke of the need to improve transit in Winnipeg, create wildlife corridors to connect parks and allow the Public Utilities Board to continue regulating Manitoba Hydro without political interference.
During a lightning round where candidates were only permitted to flash “yes” or “no” placards, Klein stood out as the only candidate who would not support the independence of the Public Utilities Board, phase out peat mining, reinstate pesticide reduction targets, enact stricter rules to protect drinking water and create legislation to protect activists from the financial burden of responding to frivolous lawsuits.
Klein was alone among the four candidates in declining an interview after the forum concluded.
The provincial election campaign is slated to formally begin on Tuesday and conclude four weeks later with a vote on Oct. 3.
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