Despite failing two environmental assessments in a row over its controversial Prosperity mine near Williams Lake, B.C., Taseko Mines Ltd. raised eyebrows when it fired a rare shot at the federal regulator, claiming its decision was flawed. Taseko said it planned to challenge the ruling through its legal counsel.
For the member bands in the Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG), however, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s Oct. 31 ruling was cause for celebration. The agency concluded that the revised New Prosperity project would cause “significant adverse environmental effects” on Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) and the Aboriginal cultures in the area.
“The project would have adverse effects on the Tsilhqot’in current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes, archaeological and historical sites, and cultural heritage and that these adverse effects could not be mitigated and therefore would be significant,” the report concluded, adding it would “endanger their ability to sustain their way of life and cultural identity.”
TNG Chief Joe Alphonse said he had “faith” in the environmental review process, but was nonetheless surprised by what he saw as “an even stronger position than we imagined,” he told Windspeaker. He saw the company’s vows to challenge the ruling as a “desperate” act.
“You get somebody cornered like that, and they’ll come out snapping and biting,” he said. “We’ve heard everything from this company.
“It’s like a bad cancer. Every time you turn around it keeps growing. Even though they want to push this mine though, I think they’ll concede defeat and step back. If they choose not to, we feel we’ve been provided all the ammunition we need to beat this company and this government in the court of law.”
The mine site is forecast to be the tenth-largest undeveloped copper and gold deposit worldwide. After provincial approval, initial mine plans were then rejected by federal reviewers in 2010, but the Conservatives allowed a second stab at a revised proposal in 2011.
However, Taseko took issue with the agency’s new decision, claiming in a Nov. 5 statement that the panel had used an incorrect model for pollution from the mine “which indicated that there would be significant seepage from the tailings storage facility into Fish Lake.”
The firm insisted its plans to control seepage into Fish Lake included a “continuous low permeability compact soil liner ... a common and acceptable practice” in modern mining operations.
“(Natural Resources Canada) and the Panel have chosen to ignore the Taseko design for the tailings basin that has been developed and reviewed by very experienced reputable tailings dam engineering and construction experts,” said Taseko’s President and CEO Russell Hallbauer. “We believe that this new information is material to the interests of the company and its shareholders.”
The company vowed to deploy its lawyers and “challenge certain aspects” of the findings on its controversial project.
It’s not the first time Taseko Mines attempted to muscle its project through with legal threats. Last March, it filed a lawsuit against the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and one of its campaigners for stating the mine would create a “tailings pond.”
That was precisely the reason its first application was rejected, and the panel said it was unconvinced Taseko’s preventative measures would actually work.
But the latest warning did not impress the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which issued its own statement on Nov. 14 calling on Taseko to explain its accusations.
Yves Leboeuf, vice-president of operations for the agency, demanded to know what had prevented the company from raising the concerns during the review process instead of after.
In light of contentious omnibus legislation last year that would allow federal Conservatives to override environmental review decisions, the vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) said First Nations are “standing by” for the government’s next steps.
“If (Environment) Minister Aglukkaq decides to recommend federal government approval of the project it will potentially lead to a long and bitter court challenge and community-based campaigns,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin.
“The UBCIC will follow the lead and will always stand with the Tsilhqot’in and Secwepemc.”
In a sign the battle may not be over yet, Taseko released another statement reiterating its claims that the mine would provide “thousands of person-years” of jobs and “billions” in taxes, and that the environmental assessment panel bore little relevance to the final decision.
“This project must go ahead and will be of enormous benefit to British Columbia and Canada,” the statement said. “It is for the government to make this decision – the panel just provides its report and views.”
As the New Prosperity controversy unfolds, the Tsilhqot’in are simultaneously embroiled in another landmark court case at the Supreme Court of Canada. The “William case,” which headed back to the courtroom on Nov. 7, seeks to affirm the nation’s title to its traditional territories. A press release issued by the Assembly of First Nations declared the case “is highly significant and will have far-ranging” implications.
Alphonse agreed, saying the Aboriginal title case would “push the envelope” of the widely-cited groundbreaking 1997 Delgamuukw case.
“It’s about the whole ball of wax: recognizing First Nations as a third layer of government in Canada,” he explained. “We have to be a part of land use and resource extraction. The levels of poverty in our communities are not acceptable.
“We’ve inspired a whole new generation of Tsilhqot’in, making Tsilhqot’in people believe that they matter and can have a say on the land. To inspire our members like that, I feel we’re already winners.”