With a report on the future of the proposed New Prosperity copper and gold mine expected this week, supporters and opponents oare accusing each other of spreading misinformation about the Cariboo project.
The future of Fish Lake is the major point of contention between Taseko Mines, which is seeking to build the open pit mine 125 km south of Williams Lake, and First Nations and environmental groups, which oppose the development.
The company said its plan will keep the lake intact, but First Nations counter the plan amounts to turning the lake into an aquarium.
"There's a lot they're not telling the general public," Tsihqot'in National Government tribal chairman Joe Alphonse said of the mining company. "My advice to anyone is to get out and research the project itself, it's very alarming what they're planning on doing."
Taseko vice-president of corporate affairs Brian Battison contended that the issues surrounding the proposed mine haven't been adequately presented to First Nations people living in the Cariboo.
"What became clear to us was that there was a lot of misinformation, particularly in First Nations communities," he said. "Many First Nations members were surprised and I think encouraged by what they heard at the hearings [in July and August] from us."
This is Taseko's second attempt to develop the site. The federal government rejected the first plan in 2010, in large part because it involved turning Fish Lake into a tailings pond. The government invited the company to submit a revised plan, which is the centre of the current environmental assessment.
The company said the new plan, which it estimates will cost $300 million more to develop, will preserve the lake by building the tailings pond further away from the mine. Battison said he's confident that it addresses all the concerns raised in the initial report.
Alponse said that although Fish Lake will continue to exist under the new plan, it will no longer be as ecologically vibrant due mining activity disrupting spawning grounds in tributary creeks and streams. He said the lake will need to be stocked each year to maintain its fish supply.
"What they're planning on doing is building an aquarium," he said. "Their definition of saving Fish Lake and our definition are drastically opposite from one another."
A three-member Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency panel will issue its opinion on the matter later this week in a report to the federal government. Cabinet will then decide whether or not to grant a certificate to allow the company to proceed.
Battison said the federal government encouraged Taseko to revise its plan and he said it would be unfair to reject it a second time.
"It would be unreasonable for them to say, you can't build it this way and you can't build it that other way, it would just seem unreasonable in the extreme," he said.
Alphonse countered by saying it was unprecedented for the federal government to give the mining company a second chance, but he's worried the federal government could allow the mine to go ahead, even if the environmental review reveals concerns about the project.
"We feel that this Harper government, being a majority government, they'll get away with just about anything," he said. "I think they're going to try to push this through."
In addition to the review panel recommendation, Alphonse will be waiting to see the result of a Supreme Court case on Tsilhqotin land title, which will be argued in front of the Supreme Court of Canada on Nov. 7.
"If Canada wants to bully its way through, then I think they've chosen to engage in a fight with the wrong First Nations," Alphonse said, adding other court challenges could be considered if the title case doesn't go the Tsilhqotin's way.
A group of Tsilhqotin elders left on a bus trip for Ottawa on Wednesday morning and plan to be at the court for the arguments next week.
Unlike the federal government, the provincial government did sign off on the first Prosperity mine plan and would have to amend the certificate it already issued if the new proposal gets the federal go-ahead.
B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix, whose party opposed the first proposal, doesn't think enough has changed in the modified plan.
"It seems to me that the compelling case put forward in the first federal review, that things have not significantly changed," he said.
If the federal government gives the plan a green light, Taseko would then move into the detailed design and engineering phase of the project.
Battison estimates the company will spend between $50 million and $60 million on the more precise engineering work over several months, but the exact timing will be dependent on when it receives permits from the various levels of government.
Civic leaders in Quesnel, Williams Lake and 100 Mile House have come out in favour of the mine, touting the jobs it will bring to the Cariboo. Veteran Cariboo-Prince George MP Dick Harris is also in favour of the project, going so far as to say getting the mine built is on is bucket list of things to do before he steps aside from public office.
"We think this project is very much in keeping with the priorities of the federal government as well as the provincial government - both talk about the need for responsible resource development," Battison said.
However, Battison and Alphonse disagree on how much First Nations support exists in the region. Battison said the company has heard from First Nations employees at its existing Gibralter mine as well as from aboriginals who hope to work at New Prosperity and are in favour of the development.
Alphonse said he believes if a referendum were held among his people it would be very lopsided against the mine.
"We had the environmental panel hearings and not one Tsilhqotin person stood up and supported the mine," he said. "Over and over and over [Taseko has] been told by our community members that they don't want them."