Springfield referendum shows overwhelming opposition to silica sand mine in rural Manitoba community

Two rural Manitoba politicians say the initial results of a referendum prove with little doubt that the residents of the RM of Springfield do not want a silica sand mine built in their community, and they hope the results also now give other leaders pause when deciding if they plan to support or oppose the project.

“The people have spoken,” RM of Springfield councillor Mark Miller said on Tuesday morning while standing alongside fellow councillor Andy Kuczynski at a media conference on the grounds of the RM of Springfield municipal office, east of Winnipeg.

“It was a free and open referendum, and the results are absolutely astounding.”

In August, Miller and Kuczynski moved forward with an independent referendum they said would analyze how many residents were in favour of or opposed to a proposed silica mine that has been at the centre of a heated and increasingly ugly controversy in the rural community.

During their Tuesday media conference, the two councillors said the initial referendum results have come in, and that more than 95% of voters who took part in the telephone referendum said they were opposed to the mine.

According to Kuczynski, since the referendum first opened it has received 4,581 votes opposed to the mine, and just 171 in favour, at last count.

Both councillors said they have confidence in the initial results of the referendum, claiming they had safe guards in place to prevent individuals from voting multiple times from the same phone number, and had “four independent scrutineers” analyze the results.

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, but those plans have been met with resistance due to concerns the project could posed a 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, where 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.

Miller said he believes the results of the referendum show that the opposition to the project is too large to be ignored, and he said he hopes other politicians take note of the results.

“Every provincial candidate in southeastern Manitoba better have their ears open,” he said. “Because if they don’t reflect on and respect the opinion of the people, then you have to ask, are they serving for a different purpose, and do they have a different agenda?”

Miller and Kuczynski have also faced legal threats from Sio Silica, after voting in opposition to a development agreement during a Springfield council meeting in June that would have allowed for construction to begin on a sand processing facility, that would be built as part of the proposed mine.

In a letter sent on Aug. 11, Sio Silica legal representatives alleged the two councillors “pursued every conceivable option to delay the re-zoning and development agreement as it served their personal, political and/or strategic interests to do so.”

The letter goes on to say that the delays will result in “millions of dollars in incremental delay costs” and that legal action could result in “vicarious liability for the municipality.”

On Tuesday, Miller said that since that letter was sent, neither he nor Kuczynski have received any further correspondence regarding possible legal action, but he said the results of the referendum have only furthered their resolve.

“We have been saying that those kinds of threats are wrong for them to be making, and we’ve asked for an apology because we think it’s irresponsible for them to intimidate elected officials,” Miller said.

“We now look forward to what they will do next, but I know that me and Andy won’t stop this, because we have a strong majority behind us.”

Springfield Mayor Patrick Therrien was asked for comment, but he said he would be making no comment until after a RM of Springfield council meeting that was scheduled for Tuesday evening.

A message sent to lawyer James Mercury, who represents Sio Silica, has no far received no response.

— 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.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun