Tuesday, October 26, 2021

MLS holds open houses on spaceport plans

Company meets with both enthusiasm and opposition

  • October 13 2021
  • By Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

GUYSBOROUGH – “The message to you is we’re coming. It’s not an ‘if’ project; it’s a ‘when’ project. And that ‘when,’ I’m hoping, is sooner than later,” Steve Matier, president and CEO of Maritime Launch Services (MLS) told local stakeholders who gathered Oct.6, in Guysborough, for an industry information session that provided interested companies with an overview of the Canso Spaceport project.

The meeting was the first of two held in Guysborough County that day. The second, an open house for the public, was held in Canso that evening.

MLS proposes to build Canada’s first commercial rocket launch facility near Canso to deliver satellites into low earth orbit. The company received approval, subject to a number of conditions, from Nova Scotia Environment in June of 2019.

On Oct. 8, the N.S. Department of Environment and Climate Change informed The Journal via email, “To date, five of the 20 items [conditions] that are required to be satisfied prior to the project starting have been provided to the department. One is deemed complete, and four others are in progress. The company has indicated that they are committed to complying with the environmental assessment approval requirements.”

Talking business

The morning meeting in Guysborough hosted approximately 60 people from area businesses. Matier told them: “While you’re here to learn about us, we’re also here, and that’s the point I wanted to make as well, to learn about you. We are setting up a portal online that you can actually go to and put in your information about what your capabilities are.”

Since the company had initially anticipated that first launch could take place as early as 2020, parties interested in working on the project want to know when it will move forward.

Addressing those concerns, Matier said, “If you’re looking for the launch date, I’m targeting the end of 2023. That’s the 18 months of construction, that’s six months of commissioning to be able to get there. Will I be able to break ground tomorrow? No. Do I want to break ground tomorrow? Yeah. But that capability isn’t there because we need that partnership with the province to be able to get there.”

That partnership is the fulfillment of the environmental approval conditions. Matier said, “We’ve really ramped up in delivering all those pieces for that project commencement goal.”

He went on to list several of the recently submitted materials, including a dangerous goods application, wildlife management plan, noise monitoring plan and water monitoring plan.

After the formal presentation concluded, the floor was opened for questions, although few were asked at the Guysborough event.

Opposition mounts protest

That afternoon, in Canso, people opposed to the spaceport gathered outside of the Canso-Hazel Hill Volunteer Fire Department, where the project’s open house was scheduled for 5 p.m.

By 4:30 p.m. more than 30 people were preparing protest signs. The Journal spoke to several protesters at that time.

Canso resident Silva Rehel accused the company of not being honest with residents by suggesting earlier that construction could begin this fall. Such statements, he said, “Basically [are] no good for Canso and the whole area, for Nova Scotia and Canada.”

Former mayor and Canso resident Buzz Lumsden said, “When you look at the project on balance, on one side good for the community and on the other bad, I don’t think it comes out; the good is not good enough for me, put it that way. The promise of jobs, I don’t think there’ll be too many people from Canso working on that particular site … I see some problems with the environment. I see, in time, a big space over there fenced off, no one can use, no animals can cross and so on.

“I for one, live close to that particular project, and there’s danger involved in that, so why should I support it? The plus side is not high enough for me,” concluded Lumsden.

Speaking to the protesters before the open house began, Mi’kmaw elder Elizabeth Marshall said, “We can exert our title and every time we’ve done that we have defeated the corporations no matter how many billions they have because we can do something nobody else can do, we can occupy the site and conduct our ceremony and do our harvesting from that site and if we are on that site as Mi’kmaw people, nobody can move us. Especially if the community members are in support of it …That’s a last resort move but prepare for it … we are born to defend this land … and we know how to apply ourselves in a very peaceful, assertive way. And that’s what we can do.”

Open house

Once the open house began, Marshall entered the building to speak with Matier, noting that she was present at the event “under the instruction of the grandmothers of the Mi’kmaw community.”

Marshall went on to say, “I’m here to tell you, that the grandmothers and grandfathers that I represent, oppose this project 100 per cent … I represent the title of Mi’kma’ki … We don’t agree to colonialism anymore.”

Marshall told Matier that if the project was given approval, the people she represents would occupy the land to prevent construction.

Public reaction

The Canso open house attracted 88 visitors over a two-hour timespan. Most of the visitors were people from the Canso area, with a few notable exceptions, such as MP for Cape Breton-Canso Mike Kelloway.

When asked for his reaction to the presentations made at the open house, Kelloway said, “Anytime there is a potential project of this magnitude it is absolutely essential to have all aspects of the project available for public consumption. And what I saw today is that they had a great deal of that presented. What I also saw is a community of folks that are outside who also have concerns and I think that hopefully what we can do, and maybe the municipality can play a role, I’m not sure, in bringing the groups together to really have a more poignant, direct Q&A on the science, on the application and on the facts. I think that would be important for community cohesion.”

Ingrid Nickerson, who manages a local business, supports the project. She told The Journal that she expects many economic spinoffs from the development, “from small businesses, entrepreneurs, an influx of people being able to move back home to work. It just goes on and on whether it’s Airbnbs or any kind of tourism. We welcome it all, we need it all, the community really can use it …There’s no limit. The sky’s the limit.”

Ray White, also a former mayor of Canso, told The Journal, “I think the open houses are important for people to try to get answers to questions they may have, to be aware of what’s happening with the project and then decide themselves how they want to process that information.

“I was interested in the range of the sound and how many decibels as you move further away because I know some residents expressed to me, they were concerned about that. I wanted to know about the chemical composition of the material that was in the first stage. I got the answers for those. I think it’s important to come in open-minded, ask questions and, if you’re not satisfied, let them know,” said White.

Some people who attended the open house didn’t wish to make a comment on the record, given the divided response to the project within the community.

Speaking to media during the open house, Matier said, “We’ve submitted literally a thousand pages of stuff, and this is a sort of a synopsis of what we’ve been doing. The idea is that people from the community come in and see what we’ve been working on and have these people answer their questions.”

Matier added that he thought people who wanted to attend the event were being scared away by the protesters who, “Don’t have any questions, they just know that they don’t like it.

Questions and concerns

During the open house, many questions that community members had were answered by Matier and his team. When asked what question he fielded most often during the event, Matier replied, “When…The big when. I’m being yelled at because I didn’t start it yet and I’m being yelled at because I want to start it … but the answer to the when is: we’re working with the regulators, we are providing them with thousands of pages of material … it’s a back and forth collaboration but until we get all those things checked off that list they’re not going to give us permission to start construction.”

Local jobs

Not many, if any, people in Canso and surrounding areas have a degree in propulsion or rocket engineering. That’s why many people have questions about the employment opportunities at the launch facility after the construction phase is over and the site is fully operational.

Matier said, in his experience, “80-plus per cent of the people that work at a launch facility like this are trades. They are the pipefitters, they’re the plumbers, they’re the electricians, they’re the guards and the fire services and the administrative support staff. That is the backbone of the facility. There is no reason that can’t come from the local community.”

Potential accidents

For people concerned about potential accidents, Matier pointed to the numerous posters on display at the open house which outline worst case scenarios and the response to such incidents.

“When you add in the engineering controls and safety protocols and my experience working for NASA for 16 years at a rocket factory and the processes involved in that, it reduces the potential for that happening significantly as well. We plan for the worst-case analysis and we put the processes in there to make sure they don’t happen,” said Matier.

Emergency response

Canso is a small community that relies on volunteers to staff the local fire department. Questions have been asked about the provision of emergency response to the launch facility; who will be responsible and what training will be required?

Paul Chavez, fire consultant for MLS, who’s worked for NASA’s fire department and the first spaceport in New Mexico, told The Journal, “We’re taking a look at different response planning that includes looking at what the community has to offer and then looking at what Maritime Launch also has to offer as well; that we can develop a system of response that will help take care of the facility and take care of the community.

“We’re going to have to sit down and really develop a solid plan of emergency response; the systems that are being developed, the engineering side with containment systems and back-up systems … We are looking at those types of systems to see what will be beneficial for the community and the facility,” said Chavez.

When asked when such a plan would be available, Chavez said, “We submitted a basic emergency response plan during the construction phase only. As the facility is underway, now we start getting into the nitty gritty of how we’re going to be able to provide this emergency response and it’s a tough system because, his personnel [referring to local fire chief Tom Kavanaugh], there’re a lot of hazards to consider.

“He’s not doing the transport. We’re relying on Nova Scotia ambulance service to do the transport. So, there’s a lot of factors that have to be taken into account in developing this emergency response plan,” concluded Chavez.

Kavanaugh said of his discussion with Chavez that evening, “We were talking about manpower availability during the peak fishing season. The amount of training and equipment that would be available and the expertise that would be required … whether it’s extinguishing a fire or containing a spill, or there’s lots of hazards that this can evolve into so there’s lots of concern.”

The local fire chief added to this comment via an electronic communication the following day, stating, “As the fire chief I’m very concerned about the emergency preparedness plan that is being considered especially when looking at the crowds predicted to attend. The lack of direct communication or involvement of the local fire departments is also very disappointing, especially since we’ll be the ones tasked during any emergency.”

Housing

At the MLS meeting in Guysborough, The Journal asked Harvey Doane, vice president, strategic development at MLS, what the company’s plans were, when it came to accommodations for project employees that don’t live in the area. He said the company hoped that would be an opportunity for local entrepreneurs, a potential new business or expansion of existing businesses.

MLS community liaison committee member Sheri Parker told The Journal that this was an issue that had come up in recent committee meetings. When asked what the community thought of the company’s decision to leave the housing of workers for the project up to local entrepreneurs, she said, “I think people are waiting for something concrete before they invest in a chalet, or before they invest in upgrading the motel or putting an Airbnb in. They’re not going to invest the money until they actually see something happening. And I know that these guys have been working their tails off and their hands have been tied waiting for the bureaucracy, but I’m thinking that people, once things actually start to move, will take the opportunity.”

End of the day

As the MLS team started to pack up the open house at 7 p.m., protesters could still be heard outside. As darkness brought cooler temperatures, a seated, masked figure, wrapped in a blanket, could be seen among the protesters. It was 85-year-old June Jarvis, a life-long resident of Canso – a place she calls a paradise.

“It’s not waiting for destruction, its waiting for discovery,” Jarvis said of Canso, “I hope this project doesn’t go through. It would be the ruination of not only our town but the whole eastern tip of Guysborough County. It’s unthinkable that this would go forward.”