Critics claim mineral exploration in B.C. needs more accountability
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Although the BCEAO is finding few friends in the environmental and conservation community, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is considered more robust than its provincial counterpart, the last line of defence for the environment. It was the CEAA that ultimately rejected the proposed Kemess North copper-gold mine in 2007 as well as Prosperity, in both cases citing impacts on fish-and-wildlife habitat and significant conflicts with aboriginal rights and titles.
However, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the CEAA is under attack, according to Josh Paterson, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law. He says the Conservatives buried profound changes to environmental-assessment legislation deep within the 900-page March 2010 budget bill, giving the federal environment minister far more discretionary power to exempt projects from full environmental reviews. Then, last summer, the feds took the scalpel to the CEAA’s budget.
“The federal government is now cutting funding to the environmental-assessment agency,” Paterson says, referring to a more than 40-percent cut announced in the June 3, 2011, speech from the throne.
Paterson shares McCrory’s concern about the province’s incomplete approach to assessing the cumulative effects of major projects. However, in fairness to the BCEAO, he says he believes that this type of analysis is complex and may be beyond the current capacity of the office, especially with metal mines that may face technically challenging and costly cleanup of toxic mine waste for years after they cease operation.
Though many critics are lamenting the weakening of environmental-assessment capacity at both federal and provincial levels, mineral exploration and mine development continue to explode. Developing economies like China have an insatiable appetite for metal, and we need it for the cars we drive, our electronic gadgets, and the appliances in our homes. According to Lyn Anglin, president and CEO of Geoscience B.C., the province has plenty of untapped mineral wealth. Geoscience B.C. is an industry-led organization created in 2005 to undertake geological-data-gathering projects with the hope of attracting more mining investment to the province.
Currently, the organization is spearheading surveys of the Quesnellia Terrane, a chunk of central B.C. rich in copper-gold porphyry and extending from the Gibraltar and Mount Polley mines near Williams Lake to the Mount Milligan copper-gold property northwest of Prince George. According to Anglin, the 2007 announcement of the project, which Geoscience B.C. dubbed QUEST, resulted in a frenzy of online claim-staking.
Zoë Younger, vice president of corporate affairs for the Mining Association of B.C., says the province hasn’t seen this much excitement around mining since the 1860s Cariboo gold rush. Regarding environmental assessments, Younger says she believes in a robust regulatory framework, but she is primarily concerned about wasteful duplication of efforts, which she says was the case with Prosperity. That’s why the association is cheering September’s B.C. Jobs Plan, which included a commitment of $24 million in funding to natural-resources ministries with the goal of reducing the time it takes to get decisions on permits and approvals.
Younger says industry opponents often overstate the environmental impact of mining and understate its economic importance. According to 2008 government figures, metal mining alone contributed $2.6 billion to the provincial economy, and that excludes what was generated from coal mining and other fossil-fuel extraction.
“The [environmental] footprint of a mine relative to its economic contribution to GDP is much lower than other resource industries,” Younger says, referring to industrial logging and commercial fishing.
Industry boosters like Geoscience B.C. and the mining association can rest assured they have the support of the provincial government. Christy Clark promised to put the Prosperity Mine back in play when she was campaigning for the B.C. Liberal Party leadership, and she has made mining one of the pillars of her jobs plan.
The province estimates that projects worth a potential $30 billion in capital investment are piled up in the BCEAO system. Of the 222 projects that the environmental-assessment office has handled since 1995, only one was rejected, while 115 were approved and the remainder either are still under review, have been withdrawn, or have been determined to be exempt from environmental assessments. Yet the annual budget of the BCEAO is telling: at only $8,754,000, it’s one-third less than what the province gave to Geoscience B.C. last May.
The provincial government may be able to dismiss criticism of its environmental-assessment record from NGOs and environmental lawyers, but it’s harder to ignore the words of its own auditor general. Last July, John Doyle, then auditor general of B.C., released a critical report on the BCEAO, saying that “adequate monitoring and enforcement of certified projects is not occurring, and follow-up evaluations are not being conducted.” He also said that information being supplied to the public is insufficient “to ensure accountability”. But what’s even more troubling is what Doyle referred to as the government’s “hostility” toward environmental assessments, as revealed in the February 2010 throne speech, during which the Speaker called the CEAA a “Byzantine bureaucratic process” that holds “jobs and investment hostage”.
John Mazure, the BCEAO’s executive director, says that although he would have preferred a “glowing report” from the auditor general, his office is taking it seriously. However, he takes issue with critics who continually point to the office’s green-light track record as a sign of fallibility. He admits that most applications that make it to the minister’s desk get approved, but he says that what’s missing from this statistic is the number of projects that are altered and improved in consultation with government specialists as they work through the assessment. Mazure calls it an “iterative process”, which is described on the BCEAO website as being intended “to address all issues satisfactorily such that there are no residual adverse impacts that would prevent an EA certificate from being issued”.
“I’ve heard everything, that we rubber-stamp projects without looking at them, but that’s simply not the case. What people don’t realize is that once a project reaches the minister, we’ve had a pretty good kick at it,” Mazure says. “Our specialists work with the proponents throughout the process on mitigative measures.”
The Prosperity Mine proposal, positioned as an economic lifeboat for the struggling Cariboo region, is like a festering wound for the province. The federal government’s rejection of Prosperity was a huge embarrassment for then-premier Gordon Campbell, who had been a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of Taseko’s bid. This fiasco also nags the BCEAO. Mazure refuses to second-guess his predecessor at the BCEAO, who recommended approval of Prosperity in spite of what appeared to be glaring environmental concerns.
He also says observers forget that the federal and provincial environmental-assessment agencies have different mandates: the former is focused primarily on environmental impacts and aboriginal rights and title, while the latter weighs economic, social, health, heritage, and environmental factors. However, Mazure admits that the mining boom has the potential to stretch the BCEAO’s resources.
“Fifty percent of our projects right now are mines,” he says. “It’s one thing assessing a mine that’s not near a water body, but when it’s metres from a water body, the environmental impacts are complex. They are very complicated and they take more of our resources. We’re very dependent on specialists from other ministries. And in these processes, not everybody will be pleased with the outcome. One side will be complaining, the other side will be celebrating.”
David Williams, of the Friends of the Nemiah Valley, belonged to one of those sides. He was heavily involved in fighting the Prosperity Mine and is now preparing for a renewed battle, as Taseko Mines has submitted a retooled proposal that could spare Fish Lake.
“Honestly, I think the Environment Ministry has been so watered down that they lack the capacity to handle these issues,” Williams says.