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First Nation partners in deal to create compost and natural gas at former mine site

Westbank First Nation is a partner in the project with Brenda Renewables, a Lower Mainland-based company.
Westbank First Nation Chief Robert Louie spoke to the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.

Westbank First Nation Chief Robert Louie says a project to rehabilitate the former Brenda Mines site west of Peachland and create compost from waste collected from Kelowna’s Glenmore landfill, and possibly other landfills in the region, could generate hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 40 years.

Speaking to the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce Thursday, Louie said the WFN is a partner in the project with Brenda Renewables, a Lower Mainland-based company. The project is slated to start operation next month, he said.

“They came to us and presented an opportunity. We looked at it, examined it, and felt this is a good thing to be involved with from an ecological point of view, from the emissions of gas to cleaning up the (former molybdenum mine) site,” said Louie.

The WFN chief touched on the Brenda Mines project partnership during his address to the chamber, which covered a wide variety of topics concerning the WFN.

According to the Brenda Renewables website, the project will also create up to 170,000 GJ of renewable natural gas per year that will be transported to an injection point in FortisBC’s natural gas pipeline.

The website says there will be no offsite odour, noise or liquid waste emissions from the project and Louie said a 120,000-square-foot building has already been built on the former mine site to house the operation.

He said he felt it is the perfect site for such an operation and noted cleaning up the site will be critical.

“Where else are you going to find a better location?” Louie asked. “It’s been devastating to the environment. There’s so much toxic waste up there. We’ve had band members in the past who worked at that site who have lost their lives with cancer from all of the poison of the mining.”

In 2021, Brenda Renewables announced its plan for the project and received support from West Kelowna city council. It said at the time it planned to have the project operational by 2021.

It also said the project would turn 80,000 tonnes of organic, yard and biosolid waste per year into Class A compost as well as create natural gas over a 20 to 40-year period.

Louie said the WFN has invested “several million dollars” in the project and it could return “tens of millions of dollars” to the WFN. But, he added, his first nation is a smaller partner in the project.

He said the project has regional support and regional directors were touring the project site on Thursday afternoon.

Asked if all permits and agreements to take waste from the Glenmore landfill in Kelowna were in place, he said he was told they were. But, he added, waste may also be collected for the project from landfills throughout the Okanagan, as far south as the Canada-U.S. border.

He said the WFN also has land that could be used for transfer stations for waste headed to the former Brenda Mines site.

The chief’s announcement was part of what amounted to a “state of the nation” address, in which he said the WFN’s annual budget is now about $50 million.

He told the sold-out Kelowna chamber audience the WFN plans to finally add about 1,000 acres of land on the east side of Okanagan Lake to reserve status—as a result of an agreement with the province when WFN land was used to build the west approach to the W.R. Bennet Bridge.

The majority of the land to be given reserve status—expected in 2024—is in the Gallagher’s Canyon area, just outside the City of Kelowna boundary. It. Along with other parcels were bought with money the WFN received from the sale of land for the bridge project, said Louie.

With a band membership of 900 and an estimated 13,000 non-Indigenous residents living on the two main Westside reserves, the WFN also has extensive commercial development near Westbank.

In the last few years, the WFN has issued $580 million of building permits and now has more than 600 businesses located on reserve lands, 100 of those operated by WFN members.

The total assessed value of WFN land is now estimated at $3.4 billion, Louie said.

In addition to the Brenda Renewables project, the WFN is also involved in other partnerships, including wind power. It is a partner in Z Power, the operation that runs the five large wind turbine windmills at the top of the Penask Summit on the Okanagan Connector.

Louie, who personally owns several businesses, including Indigenous Wines Winery, said the WFN has also focussed on tourism with its museum, wineries and golf courses.

But he noted climate change and the recent wildfires have had a devastating effect on grape growing in the area, saying his vineyard’s grape yield was down 80% this year and the average reduction throughout the valley was about 57%.

He predicted it would be tough for many grape growers and even some wineries to survive because of the damage they have sustained in recent years.

“In the last two years it has been devastating,” he said. “Wineries are really feeling the pinch. There will be difficult years ahead,” he told the chamber.

Another issue he touched on was the benefits Indigenous groups want from the Columbia River Treaty. He said while the treaty provided no benefits for Indigenous people since its start in the early 1960s until recently, and hurt Indigenous people because dams on the river ruined salmon stocks, an agreement was reached in this region to split $380 million amongst three Indigenous groups, including the Okanagan Nation Alliance (of which the WFN is a member) as part of a four-year interim deal.

He said a more permanent deal is expected to be negotiated as part of the next renewal of the treaty between Canada and the U.S.

He also announced the WFN (through the Okanagan Nation Alliance) has an agreement with BC Hydro to partner in a solar power project that could be up and running by 2026 and generate as much as 15 megawatts of power, enough to provide power to 4,500 homes.

It’s those sorts of partnerships Louie said will be key going forward.

He pointed to the inclusion in the recent wildfire fighting efforts on the west side of Okanagan Lake as an example. He said WFN officials were an integral part of the Emergency Operations Centre that coordinated efforts to fight the large McDougall Creek Wildfire.

The WFN has proposed establishing a training centre for indigenous emergency responders dealing with issues such as wildfires and floods, a proposal he said he has personally taken to B.C.’s premier and the prime minister.

“We need to work together to protect our forests from wildfire,” said Louie.