Opponents of the proposed New Prosperity copper and gold mine rejoiced Friday after a federal environmental assessment was critical of the project, but the company behind the plan vows to challenge the findings.
Xeni Gwet'in Chief Roger William was on a bus with two dozen other Tsilhqot'in people on their way to Ottawa to witness upcoming arguments in a Supreme Court case when he got the word late Thursday night that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency panel raised serious environmental and social concerns about the plan by Taseko for an open pit mine 125 km south of Williams Lake.
"In a sense we were surprised that it came out as strong," William said Friday. "We always felt that way, but you never know if the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency would report it that way."
The more than 300-page report to the federal government listed concerns ranging from the impact of the water quality and habitat in Fish Lake, the cumulative effects the mine and other resource projects would have on grizzly bears and the damage the mine would do to aboriginal cultural activities.
In particular, the report said the fish habitat concerns it believes exists as a result of the project cannot be mitigated.
The panel does not have the authority to accept or reject a project, it can only issue its opinion to the federal government. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq will have four months to examine the report and must determine if she believes the project will pose a significant environmental risk. If she finds the risk is significant, the federal cabinet then must decide if the risk is justified given the economic benefit the mine could bring to the region.
It's the second time an environmental assessment regarding the project has raised concerns. In 2010 the federal government declined to issue Taseko a certificate to proceed with construction, but invited the company to resubmit its report.
William said he believes this second report has come out even stronger against the mine than the 2010 version.
Taseko vice-president of corporate relations Brian Battison said despite the report's findings, his company still believes the project doesn't pose a significant environmental risk. He said many of the issues raised by the panel are theoretical, but that Taseko has the mining expertise to ensure any environmental impacts can be mitigated.
"The panel, respectfully, has made a mistake, that's our position," he said. "We're going to cast a light on that mistake and how it was made."
In the coming weeks, Taseko plans to prepare its own report in an attempt to rebut the findings of the panel. Battison said the company will make their findings public and provide them to Aglukkaq.
"We're going to search for the areas where they've made a mistake and the reasons how or why they've made a mistake," he said. "Did they rely on some information they they ought not to of? Or give more weight to certain information and not others? Or did they miss information all together?"
The three-member panel took Taseko to task for the lack of preliminary work which it believes should have been completed. The major difference between the first mine proposal and the current edition is the plan to keep Fish Lake intact, rather than draining it and turning it into a tailings pond. However the panel didn't feel adequate studies were done to determine whether or not tailings would still seep into the lake.
Battison said it's Taseko's view that such studies should only be done after the project receives environmental approval and that it would be cost-prohibitive to test for every uncertainty beforehand.
"Nothing would happen in the world if you did that, no one would risk the money," Battison said. "You would only do it on the expectation that there's a general approval."
The reason the new plan kept Fish Lake intact was in part to address aboriginal cultural concerns surrounding the importance of the body of water. But the report said emphatically that those cultural exists under the new model, in part because some First Nations people provided evidence that they would choose not to go to the lake if the mine were in operation.
The report also said the cumulative impacts of all activities in the region could hurt grizzly bears and that the mitigation measures proposed would be challenging to implement.
Despite the concerns, Battison said it's important for Aglukkaq and her cabinet colleagues to take into account the employment and other economic benefits the mine will offer.
"The value of benefits for people should not be lost in this," he said. "The in excess of $10 billion in new tax revenues for the peoples' governments, both federal and provincial, the thousands of jobs that would be created any may not happen because of a theoretical opinion on water quality."
Sierra Club of B.C. executive director Bob Peart said it was brave of the panelists to raise the concerns they did and he hopes the government will take the environmental issues seriously. He fears it could turn into a debate pitting the environment against the economy.
"You need to have a healthy economy, but you also need to have healthy ecosystems because our health is based on a strong ecosystem and nature that produces good air and good water," he said. "I think this dichotomy of jobs versus the environment is a very narrow way of looking at things."
Although he's happy with the contents of the report, William said the Tsilhqot'in National Government still has work to do to convince the federal government to heed the concerns raised in the report.
"We've done lobbying in Ottawa already," he said. "We did meet with Minister Aglukkaq and we had a good conversation with her, she's an Inuit and her nation and her community have had similar dealings with projects like this." To read the full report, go online to: www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/documents/p63928/95631E.pdf.