Two rural Manitoba councillors say they are weighing their options and how far they are willing to take a legal fight, after being threatened with legal action by an Alberta-based company that wants to build a silica sand mine in the RM of Springfield.
“I am not a multi-millionaire with deep pockets, I have a family to feed, I don’t have legal counsel at my purview, so how far can we go? We don’t know,” Springfield councillor Mark Miller said while standing alongside fellow councillor Andy Kuczynski and several dozen Springfield residents at a media conference held by the two councillors on Thursday morning.
“But we are going to continue to fight hard to make sure that we protect everybody.”
The two leaders spoke on the steps of the Springfield municipal offices Thursday, one day after announcing they had been threatened with legal action by Calgary-based Sio Silica, after voting in opposition to a development agreement during a Springfield council meeting in June.
At that meeting, Miller and Kuczynski voted against the development agreement which would approve the construction of a sand processing facility that would be built as part of a proposed silica mine, a project that has been at the centre of an ongoing controversy in the RM.
Plans have been in the works for about four years for Calgary-based Sio Silica to build a silica mine and processing plant near Vivian in the RM of Springfield, east of Winnipeg.
But those plans have been met with strong resistance from some who live in the RM, due to concerns the project poses a threat to the quality of groundwater and drinking water 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 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 sees the letter, which was sent by law firm MLT Aikins, as “threatening,” and said he and Kuczynski are now even considering asking the municipality and the province to cut off negations with Sio Silica, because of its contents.
“We don’t feel we want to deal with a company that not only threatens us, but threatens you as people of this municipality,” Miller said.
“Intimidation of elected officials whether it be us or anyone else is not fair and just.”
The letter alleges 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.”
Kuczynski said he and Miller will now explore if they can be legally represented by lawyers who represent the municipality, or if they might have to retain their own legal counsel.
“We are going to talk to municipal council, and if we have to, I guess we have to get our own council to protect ourselves,” Kuczynski said.
MLT Aikins lawyer James Mercury, who is representing Sio Silica, told the Winnipeg Sun in an email he does not agree with many recent allegations made by the two councillors.
He also said that legal action was not threatened against any individual members of council in the letter. However, the letter stated, “Our client is considering an action for misfeasance in public office against both Councillors Miller and Kuczynski.”
“The suggestion that Sio Silica has attempted to silence, intimidate or extort anyone is plainly false,” Mercury said. “At no point did we suggest that Council members would be sued if they do not reverse their previous vote on the development agreement. We requested that council reconsider their earlier decision.”
When asked the target of any legal action Mercury said, “We have nothing further to add at this point.”
Springfield Mayor Patrick Therrien distanced himself and the RM from Thursday’s media conference.
“The conduct of two RM of Springfield Councillors, Andy Kuczynski and Mark Miller, in regards to the press conference held does not reflect, nor was it authorized by the municipality or council as a whole,” Therrien said.
— 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