In order to facilitate the federal government’s environmental review of Taseko Mines Ltd’s controversial New Prosperity mine proposal, B.C.’s Tsilhqot’in First Nation says it has agreed to allow the company to carry out test drilling on its lands.
However, the Tsilhqot’in National Government (TNG) says it remains strongly opposed to the project, an open-pit gold and copper mine proposed for the heart of their territory in British Columbia’s central interior.
“This was not a decision we made lightly,” says Chief Marilyn Baptiste of the Xeni Gwet’in, one of the six communities comprising the TNG.
“The communities were prepared to oppose this exploration at all costs. We don’t want any more damage to this sacred area. But as a Nation, we’ve made a decision to focus our energies on the real battle of defeating this project, full-stop.”
The TNG and Vancouver-based Taseko have also agreed to end all outstanding litigation related to exploration drilling. Late last month, a court overturned an injunction previously granted to the Tsilqhot’in that was preventing exploration work at the proposed mine site.
TNG chair Chief Joe Alphonse notes that the decision to allow Taseko to conduct tests “in no way suggests that the Tsilhqot’in Nation is ready to accept the project, and in fact, the message we heard from the communities was that we must do everything we can to protect these lands and waters from this mine proposal.”
In 2010, Taseko’s initial mining project, then called Prosperity, was rejected by a federal review panel which said the mine would result in “significant adverse environmental effects” and negatively impact First Nations’ cultural heritage.
That proposal, which passed a provincial environmental assessment, would have drained pristine Fish Lake—renowned for its rainbow trout—and used it as a waste deposit. Canada is one of a handful of countries that allow natural bodies of water to be turned into tailings ponds for mine waste.
Last year, Taseko, which has already spent a lot of time and money on the project, submitted a revised proposal for environmental review that would avoid destroying Fish Lake, tagging an additional $300 million onto the original cost estimate of $800 million.
“Our initiative to preserve Fish Lake and accommodate the concerns of the federal government and First Nations communities is a major commitment and undertaking by Taseko,” the company said in a press release at the time.
However, the TNG believes the exploration tests will prove that the new proposal is still not viable. It says there is nothing in the new proposal to mitigate all the negative environmental impacts identified in the previous assessment.
Mine a Big Boon
In calling on Ottawa and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to reject Taseko’s new proposal, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, says the project “is the poster child for all that is wrong with the mining system, and a source of confrontation and mistrust that makes it difficult to find a way to work together.”
The Assembly of First Nations and environmental groups are supporting the Tshilcotin’s fight against New Prosperity, while B.C. mining and business groups believe the project would be a big boon to the province.
The mine is projected to raise provincial government revenues by $5.52 billion, federal government revenues by more than $4 billion, and create 71,000 jobs, according to Taseko’s website.
The federal government, which came in for fierce criticism from environmental groups for accepting Taseko’s second proposal after rejecting its initial one, is expected to make a decision on the proposal by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Taseko said last week that it is taking legal action against the Western Canada Wilderness Committee for what it claims are false and defamatory statements concerning Taseko and the New Prosperity project.
“Taseko welcomes a full, thorough, and open process to evaluate the merits of New Prosperity project, which we believe will be a big win for British Columbia, First Nations, and Canada,” the company said in a release.
“We cannot, however, stand idly by when certain parties such as the Western Canada Wilderness Committee mislead the public about the project. The facts do matter. All parties benefit from an open and fair discussion of the facts, not false, misleading and harmful inaccuracies.”
But the environmental group says it is not backing down and will “continue to vigorously speak out about the severe risks of Taseko’s proposed mine.”
“We are very disappointed that this mining company has chosen litigation instead of fair and open public debate,” says national director Joe Foy.
“We believe this court action stifles fair comment about Taseko’s environmentally risky mine proposal. People should be able to enjoy full participation in the Federal Environmental Review process, including the right to comment—without fear of time-consuming and costly litigation.”