Saving Morden Mine: Our Meeting with the B.C. Minister of Environment, May 2012

by Eric Ricker

In early May a small FOMM delegation met with Minister of the Environment Terry Lake to make representations about Morden Mine's ailing structures and the site development plan we commissioned in 2010. In attendance were the writer, FOMM members and professional engineers John Hofman and John Knappett, MLA Ron Cantelon, and by speaker-phone connection, Assistant Deputy Minister Lori Halls.

We were given half an hour to make our case and we were well-equipped for the occasion. The minister was given a presentation book containing supportive letters from several local government officials and local area MLAs. Also included were: copies of the Metro Testing Lab Report of 2005, the most detailed of the two engineering studies FOMM has commissioned on the Morden structures; our Site Plan Study of 2010; recent front page news stories about Morden Mine as well as Jim Hume's highly persuasive column published in the Times Colonist last summer; and finally, what I labeled the "Wilkinson Correspondence," excerpts from letters the well-connected George Wilkinson exchanged with various officials in the Social Credit government of the day that led to Morden's establishment as a provincial "historic" park, the only such park in our system of provincial parks.

Even though we had submitted a great deal of material to the ADM and to the minister's office in advance of the meeting, it soon became apparent that the minister was not properly briefed. This was both an advantage and a handicap - the former because his thinking had apparently not been shaped by preconceived notions; the latter because part of our very short period of time with him was taken up providing basic information about Morden.

As the meeting proceeded it became evident that the minister was not clear as to the government's jurisdiction over Morden (ADM Halls assured him that Morden is indeed the government's responsibility) or its responsibility for upkeep and repairs (ADM Halls suggested that we might enquire of non-governmental sources and had recommended that to us when John Hofman and I met with her in the fall of 2011).

At this stage all members of the delegation began to make compelling and, I believe, very effective arguments. John Hofman pointed out that prospective private donors had been approached a number of years ago and the common refrain was: "why should we provide funds for what is, after all, the government's responsibility?" He also pointed out, when asked by the minister, that it would be a waste of money to clear rotten timbers from the upper reaches of the headframe without committing to repair the structures. Ron Cantelon addressed our vision for the park, showing the minister how Morden connects with an important trail system that one day will extend through to Boat Harbour along the old PCCM railway line. Both John Hofman and John Knappett provided expert insights into the failings of the headframe and tipple, illustrating for the minister through graphic photographs and slides just what had to be done - and soon -- to prevent a catastrophic collapse. John Knappett made it clear that with the extent of deterioration now evident the immediate fix could cost upwards of $500,000. It was also pointed out that the long-term fix was previously estimated by our landscape architect at slightly more than $2 millions.

We then discussed in more detail our vision for Morden. John Hofman had prepared at Ron Cantelon's request an artistic rendition of the site (see page 3) showing a future Vancouver Island coal mining interpretation centre at Morden. We put it to the minister that we were prepared to undertake a community fund-raising campaign to make the interpretation centre a reality if the government committed to fixing the structures. We suggested that this arrangement could be a prototype for funding improvements and repairs in other provincial parks. In other words, it could be a model for a new policy for rehabilitation and development for the provincial park system, something that is desperately needed after years of operating budget cuts even as park expansion has continued.

As the end of the meeting approached I offered the view that this was not a partisan project but one in which we had already sought and achieved bi-partisan support. I further suggested that all governments since Morden's inception as a park had taken a pass on doing anything to maintain the integrity of the structures or to develop the park in any significant way. The minister rapidly concurred with the idea that Morden's rescue should be a bi-partisan project - at which point I suggested that the idea could be taken to the Legislature, where NDP members have already spoken in favour of Morden's importance, and it could be realized by planning repairs over a two to three year budget cycle, which would lock in which ever party formed the government after next year's spring election.

So, what, if anything, did this brief but intense working session actually achieve? The minister committed to a new engineering study on the most vulnerable areas of the structure. That's something required before any work can commence. A study proposal is now on the minister's desk. We certainly have his attention, then, if not yet his full commitment.

After the meeting the delegation "de-briefed" over coffee in the Legislature dining room, taking the measure of the session as well as considering future steps. My own feeling is that we must maintain the information flow and yes, even the pressure, until the government decides one way or another about Morden's future.

Why? Every engineer who has examined Morden has stated that the structures can be fixed, but time is increasingly of the essence because the rate of deterioration is accelerating. Morden no longer has the luxury of time.

While it's obvious that repairing and developing Morden Park will never be anyone's top priority in any given year, we advised the minister that the nub of the problem is that we are running out of years. It's now very nearly a do or die situation.

Morden is only one of two coal mine sites that remain from the early days of mining in North America with intact reinforced concrete surface structures - and of these two it was the first built, some one hundred years ago next year. It therefore has a very high heritage value as well as the unique advantage of being located in a park created for the express purpose of saving this important example of industrial archeology.

As I stated recently in an article I wrote for Take 5 magazine, it would be a crime against history for us to lose Morden because of indifference and neglect - to which could now be added, or because of short-term provincial financial constraints.