Ajax debate a microcosm of B.C. resource battles

Conflicts of interest, transparency and the role of science in the Ajax debate

The Ajax debate started before I came to Kamloops. It was already an issue dividing the communi­ty before I even knew there were sides to choose. I’ve now lived in Kamloops for four years and I’ve watched passionate people on both sides of the issue make their case, just as larger groups do all over the province about issues bigger and smaller than Ajax. It’s been a front row seat to watch the process un­fold. And it’s been pretty messy.

Today, I am little more decided than I was when I got here, but at least I’m more informed. This is thanks to the steady dialogue that the divide has created within the community. Just browsing the Facebook pages, “Stop Ajax Mine” and “Support Ajax Mine” will show just how evenly split we are on the mine – each group has around 5,400 members.

It’s easy to see why things seem to split so evenly. The anti-Ajax crowd decries the mine’s proximi­ty to the city and how vulnerable Kamloops is to air pollution and dust, particularly from the south of the city where the mine is set to be located. The pro-Ajax side talks mostly about its economic impact rather than its environmental one, saying that the jobs created will help grow and sustain the city for years to come.

Most of the opposition seems to be focused on the environmen­tal review process, hoping that the mine will get a fair and honest re­view before going ahead. To that end, they have started a crowd­funding campaign to “hire unbi­ased experts to provide reports on various parts of the Ajax applica­tion,” as stated on the campaign’s Indiegogo page.

There was an interesting wrin­kle in their plan, however, when KGHM-Ajax, the company behind the proposed mine, gave $5,000 to the initiative and said it was “ded­icated to the most thorough study of our project and a careful exam­ination by the Kamloops commu­nity,” and encouraged the idea of a third party review of the appli­cation. The company’s confidence shone through and some praised it as a well-thought PR move. The campaign, however, decided to re­ject the donation, citing a conflict of interest and that it would in­stead pay for its review with “un­biased dollars,” as if there was such a thing.

The move to reject the donation baffles me. Surely the campaign would have met its goal with or without the Ajax donation, but why not keep it anyway? But the whole campaign seemed off to me to begin with. If pro-Ajax groups and anti-Ajax groups are paying for their own reviews, will we get anywhere? Or will both sides just further entrench themselves by reading their own reports in cer­tain ways? What would happen if this anti-Ajax-funded report didn’t show the results its backers are no doubt hoping for?

James Jenkinson, a member of the anti-Ajax Facebook group asked a good question along these lines, “If we have to pay the ex­perts, aren’t we doing exactly what we decry in big industry, paid sci­ence that agrees with us in direct proportion to the value of the cheque we write?”

James here is onto something. Is science being used honestly in this debate? Do we have anything more than each side pointing at parts of their own reports that make them look good? So far, it’s tough to tell. Transparency is still something that is more talked about than practiced. But that just goes to show that KGHM-Ajax’s donation really was the pointed PR strike the company had hoped it would be, regardless of its ac­ceptance by the campaigners.

But still, it’s easier for me to sympathize with the anti-Ajax crowd. The approval process is a daunting and lengthy one, and only one side has control over the project’s accountability to that process. The anti- side is merely a watchdog, left scrambling to do its own review each time reports are released, up against company professionals and government bu­reaucrats.

Watching the process unfold makes me wonder how a proj­ect that is orders of magnitude larger, like B.C.’s proposed LNG industry, can possibly be held to account – both economically and environmentally.