resources | BCBusiness
Taseko Mines already operates the Gibralter open-pit copper mine near Williams Lake
Whichever side is right in the ongoing war of words between the Vancouver miner and the federal government, the dispute suggests a process in need of overhaul
The never-ending saga that is Taseko Mines’ attempt to get a permit to build the New Prosperity project in west central B.C. now threatens to undermine the credibility of the federal government’s environmental review process. Taseko has applied for a judicial review of a second recommendation to reject the project on environmental grounds.
Lost credibility in a governmental review process has consequences far beyond whether or not one mine proceeds. It could destroy industry confidence in the process, and that would lead to no mines being proposed, let alone built. That might cheer environmental and some First Nations interests, but it would be bad news for the provincial economy.
Taseko’s first attempt to get a permit for this mine proposal was rejected in 2010 after an environmental review panel (under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act) criticized the company’s decision to use Fish Lake as its tailing pond, and the excessive footprint of the operation in what is the traditional territory of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation. Taseko went back to the drawing board, added $300 million to the project cost, and in June 2011 resubmitted the mine proposal with a new tailings pond (i.e. not Fish Lake) and a significantly reduced footprint.
The second environmental panel, in a report released a few weeks ago, found that the project met the environmental test in more that 33 specific areas—but the panel still recommended rejection based on a perceived threat to Fish Lake from seepage from the new tailings pond, and for the impact on the Tsilhqot’in current use of traditional lands.
What has Taseko’s shorts in a knot—and the reason the company wants a judicial review—is its contention that the review panel reached its “seepage” conclusions by relying on the National Research Council’s modeling of the wrong tailings pond design.
Adding to Taseko’s ire is the reference to a traditional lands impact—which passed muster in the first panel review in 2010—that through redesign has been further reduced by 84 per cent in the second go-round.
Taseko details all its concerns in a 15-page letter (dated November 8) to federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, and again in a subsequent response (November 15) to a query from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
This has all the earmarks of a “he said, she said” dispute and the outcome is still unclear. But if Taseko’s accusation is correct—that the panel based its conclusions on an analysis of the wrong project—there has to be some serious accounting. Just how could that happen?
At risk here is more than just the New Prosperity Mine. At risk is the credibility of the process. Taseko has said that it will drop the request for a judicial review if the minister simply sends the project ahead (in other words, ignores the recommendation of the panel) for the next phase of permitting. That might be good for Taseko, but it would be bad from a public policy perspective. This one needs to be properly aired.
Don Whiteley is a natural resources writer based in North Vancouver.