We’re bobbing in a boat in the middle of Duncan Lake, an emerald-coloured, pristine mountain lake full of Dolly Varden char, rainbow trout, and mountain whitefish.
John Allen French, hereditary chief of the Takla First Nation, looks every bit the warrior, wearing a black bandanna, an amulet of animal bones, and a fearsome grizzly tattooed on his right shoulder.
This lake, 430 kilometres northwest of Prince George in the mountains between the Williston Lake reservoir and Smithers, has become a flashpoint for French and the Sekani (Tse Keh Nay) people now that a Toronto-based mining firm wants to fill it with waste rock.
On a late August afternoon, French had gathered with some 100 Natives and non-Natives on the shores of this six-kilometre-long lake, known to Natives as Amazay, which means “Little Mother”. While the chief led Tse Keh Nay elders and youth in a ceremonial plunge in the frigid water, over the ridge at Northgate Minerals Corporation’s Kemess South copper and gold mine, huge Euclid trucks were hauling ore from a giant open pit as they have day and night since the firm acquired the property from the bankrupt Royal Oak Mines. The mine, which pumps an estimated $20 million annually into the Prince George economy alone, resulted from a deal between the province and Royal Oak Mines. After revoking the company’s permit in northwestern British Columbia in order to create Tatshenshini Park, the province expeditiously approved a mining permit at Kemess Creek. In addition, the company was awarded a $160-million compensation package. In 2000, Northgate Minerals acquired the Kemess South mine, which now employs 475 people. Its plant is capable of processing 52,000 tonnes of ore daily, with an annual output of 300,000 ounces of gold and 75 million pounds of copper, and is powered by a 360-kilometre, 130-kV power line. It’s a massive installation of infrastructure in a mineral-rich, remote region of northern B.C.
However, deposits at Kemess South are expected to be tapped out by 2008. That’s why Northgate is hoping to extend the life of its investment, at a capital cost of $190 million, by developing an adjacent ore body known as Kemess North, with an expected life span of 11 years. The company says the only safe and economically viable option is to use Amazay Lake as a tailings pond for an estimated 700 million tonnes of waste rock.
French says if the lake has to be destroyed, the project shouldn’t proceed.
“These CEOs must have children. I mean, we’ve already got problems with fresh water around the world. I can’t believe they’re even thinking of this,” the tough, plainspoken chief says. “This is more than just a First Nations issue; the general public should be up in arms about this.”
Beyond Northgate’s plans to destroy a lake and somehow transplant its indigenous fish to new habitat, First Nations fear possible contamination of water downstream of Amazay Lake and possible wildlife-habitat impacts, and they claim they have not been given an opportunity to participate fully in the review process.
The fate of the lake has not yet been sealed. In March 2005, at the request of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, then–federal environment minister Stephane Dion announced the formation of a joint federal-provincial review panel to conduct an environmental assessment of Northgate’s proposal. The panel, which is mandated by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, is expected to submit a report with recommendations to both federal and provincial environment ministers early in 2007.
In its hefty environmental-impact assessment, Northgate proposes to move Dolly Varden, rainbow trout, and whitefish to nearby Mulvaney and Whudzi lakes as well as carry out habitat-enhancement efforts in nearby streams. The firm would then build a 90-metre-high dam at one end of the lake and two smaller dams to prevent water inflow and outflow in preparation for mine-tailings disposal. Submersion of mine tailings is a common method of preventing acid rock drainage.
(Research indicates that the most environmentally friendly way to store mine waste is by submerging it in water, assuming the reservoir is stable and secure. After ore is extracted from the ground, it is crushed into a fine powder called tailings, which is treated with chemicals to separate the target metal. The leftover waste contains acid-generating sulphides that when exposed to the air react with oxygen, producing sulphuric acid that can leach into the surrounding environment. Hence, the term acid rock drainage. )
Northgate, which has already sunk millions of dollars into consultants’ reports and exploratory drilling at Kemess North, stands firm by its assertion that Amazay Lake is the only viable waste-rock disposal alternative. “There isn’t a feasible alternative to Duncan [Amazay] Lake, and that’s not news. Otherwise, the project won’t go ahead,” Peter MacPhail, Northgate’s vice president of operations, says in a phone interview from the company’s head office in Toronto.
He refuses to comment further on the controversial proposal.
The window for public input will soon close. After public hearings in Prince George from October 30 to November 3 and in Smithers from November 20 to 24, the panel will accept written submissions until December 14. French claims that participant funding to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars promised by the review panel has yet to materialize, crippling the Tse Key Nay’s ability to prepare a meaningful and timely submission. In addition, the Tse Keh Nay have requested hearings be held in one of their local communities like Kwadacha, Takla Landing, or Tsay Keh Dene at the north end of Williston Lake. At Georgia Straight press time, with just days to go before the public hearings, Lucille Jamault, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, would say only that an application for funding was received from the Tse Keh Nay in September and that the panel had not made a decision on either the request for funding or additional public hearings.
“We’ll be participating in the hearings under protest,” French says.
The red-hot mining industry is watching the proceedings closely and clearly would like to see Kemess North move forward. In its annual report on B.C. mining, PricewaterhouseCoopers reported in May that gross mining revenues in the province jumped from $4.58 billion in 2004 to $6.29 billion in 2005. Still, the industry continues to criticize the government review-and-permitting process as onerous, time-consuming, and costly because of the duplication of effort in satisfying both federal and provincial environmental-assessment requirements (something the joint review panel is meant to eliminate). In a speech last spring to the Vancouver Board of Trade, Michael McPhie, president and CEO of the Mining Association of British Columbia, singled out the permitting process as both the “most significant key to our continued success and our greatest roadblock”. In its winter 2006 newsletter, under the headline “Kemess Mine Expansion Will Set the Standard”, the mining association touts the Kemess operations as “a major part of the northern B.C. economic landscape” and says that the Kemess North project “will ensure those benefits continue on well into the future”.
Northgate, in a letter to the review panel dated March 12, 2006, wrote that it wished to “convey to the panel the very real and critical timeline required, in this case, for a successful project”.
Successful or not, the mining proposal is bound for a bumpy ride.
“We’re going to fight this until the end,” French says. “There are a lot of people who are frustrated and would like to put a stop to it right now. If the lake was taken out of the equation, we’d be sitting down and talking with the mining company. We’re not against mining; we need economic development and jobs. But we’re talking about a lake that is part of Tse Keh Nay territory.” He adds that archaeological work around the lake shows evidence of ancestral use dating back hundreds of years.
The Tse Keh Nay, who include the Takla, Kwadacha, and Tsay Keh Dene First Nations, have sat at the bargaining table with Northgate before. Just last June, Northgate reached an agreement with the Tse Keh Nay ensuring that the company’s right to mine would be respected in exchange for an annual payment to the bands of $1,000,000 until Kemess South winds down operations in two years.
While the dispute simmers, past resource development in Tse Keh Nay traditional territories has already left a bitter legacy. With the completion of the W.?A.?C. Bennett Dam in 1967 on the Peace River, the massive Williston Lake reservoir flooded a 200-kilometre stretch of the Rocky Mountain Trench, causing the dislocation of First Nations throughout the region. Today the Tse Keh Nay are much more organized and politically astute, and the battle to protect Amazay Lake has only strengthened their resolve to assert aboriginal rights and title. French has proven a tough negotiator, perhaps mostly because he can speak the language of resource extraction. He has run his own successful logging company but last fall led his people in a logging-road and railway blockade to protest a lack of consultation with the government and Canfor over development in their territories.
French and the Tse Keh Nay are not the only people watching Kemess North closely: the mine proposal has attracted attention and scrutiny from environmentalists and other First Nations.
Ed John is a hereditary chief of the Tl’azt’en First Nation, located at the mouth of the Tache River on the north shore of Stuart Lake, 65 kilometres north of Fort St. James, and has been an elected member of the First Nations Summit since 1993. John says the North Kemess issue threatens to undermine the spirit of the much-celebrated New Relationship, which has been a cornerstone of the B.C. Liberals’ image-building during their second term in office.
The so-called new relationship is based on three principles: first, that aboriginal rights and title exist; second, that First Nations have the ability and authority to make decisions with respect to territories; and third, that there be shared decision-making between government and First Nations.
According to John, the province and feds have failed on all three counts.
“First Nations are being left out on the sidelines wondering how their interests are going to be heard,” says John, a lawyer by profession who has been scrutinizing the relationship between government and Native interests for the bulk of his career. “However, it’s not just about participation and consultation, it’s about accommodation.”
In other words, John says First Nations are no longer content with token lip service when it comes to sharing resource-management decisions. Recent court decisions have added weight to this demand, starting with the landmark 1997 Supreme Court of Canada Delgamuukw decision, which states: “Aboriginal title lands must not be put to a use which is irreconcilable with the nature of the group’s attachment to the land.” In a 2004 decision involving the Haida Nation, the Supreme Court of Canada established that consultation and accommodation must occur whether or not a First Nation has proven rights and title in court.
John echoes French in saying that the destruction of a fish-bearing lake should arouse the concern of more than a few hundred Natives from an obscure region of northern British Columbia.
“All B.C. citizens have to ask if it’s acceptable for government to approve the destruction of this lake,” John says.
The North Kemess issue is putting Fisheries and Oceans Canada under the microscope. In a discussion paper, the Northern B.C. Mining Action Group says permitting the lake’s destruction would be in violation of a number of the federal agency’s regulations. For example, Section 35 of the Fisheries Act states that “no person shall carry on any work or undertaking that results in the harmful alteration, disruption, or destruction of fish habitat.” As well, the paper notes, the federal Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER), established in 2002 as part of the Fisheries Act, state that waste rock must not be disposed of in an area “that is, or is part of, a natural water body”.
The authors of the paper also say that the North Kemess waste-rock disposal plan does not live up to Fisheries and Oceans’ no-net-loss policy because destroying a lake and simply transplanting the fish to another water body does not constitute habitat compensation.
So far in its correspondence with the review panel, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has given tacit approval to the project. In an interview with the Straight, Adam Silverstein, environmental-assessment and major-projects manager for the Pacific region, says the federal agency will make its position clear on Northgate’s mitigation and compensation strategy at the upcoming public hearings. Before a fish-bearing lake can be used as a tailings pond, FOC must first schedule, or approve, the lake under the MMER. If FOC approves the destruction of Amazay Lake, it will be the first time that the MMER have been so used.
“We’re not at the stage of recommending that the lake be scheduled,” Silverstein says. “The environmental assessment has to happen first, and if there is a positive outcome we would move to the permitting stage. Right now we’re talking about the proponent’s mitigation and compensation plans.”
Silverstein says that pressure on fish habitat from the booming mining sector is on the rise, but he also acknowledges that this is nothing new for FOC.
“You have to remember that destruction of fish habitat has been part of the Fisheries Act for decades, and it’s not just a mining issue,” Silverstein says.
John Werring, a conservation biologist with the David Suzuki Foundation, agrees that FOC already has a long history of condoning habitat destruction. Understanding why the federal agency—which is mandated to be the guardian of freshwater and anadromous, or ocean-run, fish species and their habitat—would sign off on a mining proposal that threatens to destroy a lake with fish presence requires a careful reading of the Fisheries Act. In 1986, in response to widespread public concern over the loss of fish habitat, the then Department of Fisheries and Oceans adopted a policy of “no net loss”. Loosely interpreted, it means that any commercial activity that proposes to destroy fish habitat must have mitigation measures that result in a 2-to-1 net gain in productive fish habitat; however, the results have been mixed, at best.
Prescribing appropriate compensation measures requires a thorough understanding of fish habitat, something Werring says is not necessarily the case in B.C. “DFO is not applying no net loss with any sort of rigour,” he says during a phone interview from his Vancouver office. “Consider the fact that we have around 8,000 distinct stocks of salmon in B.C. and [that there are] roughly 3,500 we know nothing about.”
As for the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations, Werring believes that they were purposely written to allow a company to have a fish-bearing lake downgraded to permit its use as a tailings pond when no other economically feasible alternative exists.
“It’s expeditious for a mining company. It’s the least costly, and once mining is completed they don’t have an expensive wastewater-treatment and monitoring program to maintain,” Werring says. “There’s a lot of room for abuse of the regulation. The B.C. government has been streamlining and relaxing environmental assessment and now they’re pressuring Fisheries and Oceans to do the same.” The B.C. Liberals passed bills 38 and 75 in 2002 and 2003, respectively; Bill 38 drastically reduced accountability and transparency in the environmental-assessment process, and the rather draconian Bill 75—otherwise known as the Significant Project Streamlining Act—can be used to slice through environmental “red tape” for any project deemed in the “public interest”.
Assuming that a resurgent mining industry will likely continue to exploit weaknesses and gaps in FOC policy to get mining permits approved, Werring says, the public has every reason to be concerned about Kemess North.
The David Suzuki Foundation is in the midst of preparing a submission for the North Kemess joint review panel that will urge both levels of government to take a more holistic, cost-benefit view of massive resource-extraction proposals like Kemess North; specifically, to establish the value of the natural systems like forests, wetlands, and watersheds that will be compromised by resource extraction.
“Proponents have never had to account for natural capital,” Werring says.
Back on the shores of Amazay Lake, Chief John Allen French and the Tse Keh Nay people have more pressing battles to fight. In a vast province with countless fish-bearing waterways, Amazay Lake might be small enough to be considered collateral damage on the road to economic development. However, if Northgate is given the green light to render this pristine lake into a waste pond, it will mark another unfortunate milestone in fish-habitat and water protection. And as Ed John warns, it could also put an ugly blemish on the face of the province’s “new relationship”.