Critics claim mineral exploration in B.C. needs more accountability

Mineral exploration is exploding in B.C., but critics claim the provincial government isn’t assessing the environmental impact.

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      Soaring global demand for metal has caused a surge in mining and exploration in British Columbia, and Premier Christy Clark has promised to open eight new mines by 2015. However, recent reports from B.C.’s auditor general and the UVic Environmental Law Centre suggest the provincial environmental-assessment office is not up to the task.

      Mines, typically subject to both federal and provincial reviews, are extremely complex. They often require hundreds of millions of dollars in investment capital and promise high-paying jobs and a windfall in tax revenue, but their environmental footprint is equally dizzying, with potential long-term impacts on fish-and-wildlife habitat.

      Currently, the 50-person staff at the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office (BCEAO) is weighing the socioeconomic benefits and environmental impacts of 60 projects, half of them for new mines, mine expansions, or old mines being resurrected, thanks to recent high mineral prices. Among them are projects like the Ajax Mine, a proposal by Abacus Mining and Exploration Corporation (in partnership with Polish mining giant KGHM Polska Miedz S. A.) for a massive 500-million-tonne (over 23 years) low-grade-copper property that was operated by Teck Cominco in the 1980s and 1990s but abandoned when copper prices were low.

      This open-pit project on the doorstep of Kamloops is worth $550 million in capital investment, and is expected to have a 400-person full-time work force. It is undergoing both federal and provincial environmental assessments and has dominated public debate in this city of almost 90,000, just as the divisive Prosperity Mine, approved by the province but rejected by the feds, did and continues to do in the community of Williams Lake.

      Vancouver-based environmental lawyer Mark Haddock, author of a report titled Environmental Assessment in British Columbia, published by the UVic Environmental Law Centre in November 2010, believes citizens have good reason to be wary of the process.

      “I don’t think the B.C. assessment process is equipped to deal with these proposals,” Haddock says.

      In his critique, Haddock called B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Act “weak and discretionary”, and wrote that decisions by the environment minister are often arbitrary and sometimes run counter to advice from government biologists and technical experts. Furthermore, the fact that the BCEAO hasn’t rejected a single proposal since 1995 further undermines public confidence in the process, according to Haddock.


      For many, the Prosperity copper-gold mine, being proposed by Taseko Mines Limited for a site 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake on the Chilcotin Plateau, is the poster child for what’s wrong with B.C.’s environmental-assessment process.

      The story of Prosperity is convoluted. Given the mine’s considerable potential impacts on the Tsilhqot’in aboriginal people and on Fish Lake—home to more than 80,000 rainbow trout—which Taseko proposed to use for waste-rock impoundment, the mine met the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s requirements for a joint review panel that would unite federal and provincial authorities in a single entity.

      However, in 2008 Taseko Mines wrote a letter to federal and provincial officials criticizing the joint-review-panel process for putting “the future of a billion-dollar project in the hands of three unelected, unaccountable individuals” and placing an “excessive emphasis on established or asserted Aboriginal rights and title”.

      Soon after receiving this letter, the province opted out of the joint review and decided to conduct its own independent assessment. Consequently, Tsilhqot’in leaders and environmental groups such as the Friends of the Nemiah Valley (FONV) boycotted the provincial process, claiming that Victoria was biased in favour of the proponent. In January 2010, acting on recommendations from the executive director of the BCEAO—and despite concerns raised by provincial biologists about impacts on grizzly-bear and fish habitat—the province approved Prosperity.

      Meanwhile, the federal review was still under way, participants poring over a raft of First Nations cultural and environmental concerns. Almost a year after the province rendered its green light for Prosperity, the feds rejected the mine and Taseko’s plans to replace Fish Lake with an artificial fish habitat, among other concerns. In a strongly worded decision, Jim Prentice, federal environment minister at the time, called the mine’s impacts on fish of “high magnitude and irreversible”, and wrote that the project would destroy “an important cultural and spiritual area for the Tsilhqot’in people”. The company went back to the proposal stage.

      Two processes, two dramatically different results, Haddock says.

      “The feds and the province were using the same data but with a different set of criteria,” he says. “It’s important that these assessments appear credible, and when you have two very different decisions, as in the case of Prosperity, it raises some very serious doubts in the minds of the public and participants.”

      David Williams, FONV president, agrees, and he says it’s the reason his group didn’t participate in the provincial process.

      “We didn’t take part in the provincial review because we didn’t think there was any point,” Williams says.

      Wayne McCrory, a bear biologist and cofounder of the Valhalla Wilderness Society, also boycotted the provincial process but, like FONV, made submissions to federal reviewers. He says the contempt for unbiased scientific opinion that he believes underpinned the B.C. approval of Prosperity is something he has seen before: when, in 2004, the province approved the contentious Jumbo Glacier Resort project in the Purcell Mountains east of Kootenay Lake after a lengthy process that started when the proponent first filed an application in 1996.

      “In the case of Jumbo, 11 biologists on the former grizzly-bear scientific advisory committee wrote a letter to the minister, opposing Jumbo. I was one of those members,” McCrory tells the Georgia Straight over the phone from his home in the Slocan Valley. “Valhalla [Wilderness Society] hired independent biologist Dr. Brian Horejsi to do an impact study on grizzly bears related to Jumbo. He did an extensive job, including a CEA [cumulative effects assessment]. A number of Ministry of Environment biologists were also opposed.”

      McCrory says he believes the province’s biggest weakness is in assessing cumulative effects, which, by the federal government’s definition, are “changes to the biophysical, social, economic and cultural environments caused by the combination of past, present and reasonably foreseeable future actions”. McCrory believes that if the BCEAO conducted thorough CEAs, it would never have authorized the Prosperity Mine and the destruction of a culturally and environmentally significant water body like Fish Lake.

      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.




      Nov 24, 2011 at 9:21am

      It speaks volumes when a Harper government review panel turns down a mine on the basis of environmental concerns. The provincial Liberals have long been major advocates of mining and remain faithful to this constituent no matter the consequences. In short, they are incapable of any objective assessment of the matter. As Williams argues, taking part in any provincial review is pointless, given the biased results.


      Nov 24, 2011 at 2:39pm

      I agree with you Doc there is little chance of getting at what the Liberals are really up to just remember the HST. However I am wondering what your would perscribe for Britsh Columbians who are sick of the lies should they try Open Sesame to get at truth? Which is the true gold rather than the Liberals who want us treasure all their lies.

      glen p robbins

      Nov 25, 2011 at 6:39pm

      We need floating corporate tax structure for business. Those that use more public resource to produce a dollar must pay more - while those that do not ought to pay less - that's fair.