On November 2, 2010, the federal government announced a long-awaited decision not to approve Taseko’s controversial open-pit gold and copper mine in British Columbia, citing concerns that the project would have a significant adverse environmental effect. According to then federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice: “the significant adverse environmental effects of the Prosperity project cannot be justified as it is currently proposed.”

The proposed mine site, located 125 km southwest of Williams Lake, would have covered a 35 sq. km area in the Teztan Yeqox (Fish Creek) watershed including Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) and Y'anah Biny (Little Fish Lake). The Tsilhqot’in and Secwepemc First Nations currently use this area for hunting, trapping, fishing, gathering food and medicine, and ceremonial and spiritual activities. Fish Lake is also known as one of BC’s top 10 catch and release fishing sites due to its unique stock of 85,000 rainbow trout and picturesque setting.

Environmental Assessments (provincial and federal)

The decision may have come as a shock to the proponent of the project, Taseko, and the British Columbia provincial government given previous regulatory approvals at the provincial level. Taseko has been seeking approval of the Prosperity Mine since 1993 and, in January of this year, it received an Environmental Assessment Certificate to proceed with the project from the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office (“EAO”). The EAO concluded that the project would have significant adverse effects on fish and fish habitat, however, the EAO also determined that the adverse effects could be justified.

An environmental assessment was also undertaken at the federal level by a Review Panel appointed by former Minister Prentice in January 2009. In June of this year, the federal Review Panel concluded that the Project would result in significant adverse environmental effects on: fish and fish habitat; navigation; the current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes by First Nations; cultural heritage; and potential or established aboriginal rights or title. The Panel also concluded that the Project, in combination with past, present and reasonably foreseeable future projects would result in a significant adverse cumulative effect on grizzly bears in the South Chilcotin region as well as on fish and fish habitat.1 The Panel critiqued Taseko’s proposal to compensate for this destruction by the creation and stocking of Prosperity Lake on the grounds that it “would neither meet Fisheries and Oceans Canada No Net Loss policy nor provide assurance to the First Nations that the fish would be safe for consumption.”2

Political Debate

On the political front, former Premier Gordon Campbell endorsed the proposed mine before the Union of B.C. Municipalities last month when he declared: “this government says let's get on with the Prosperity Mine in this province.”3 The project was expected to contribute $30 million in government revenue over the 20 year life of the project and would have created hundreds of opportunities for employment during the mine’s construction and operating period.4 However, while many people in the Williams Lake district were strong supporters of Taseko’s proposal, there was adamant opposition by First Nations and environmental groups.

The primary concern to First Nations and environmentalists was Taseko’s plan to drain Fish Lake in order to access gold and copper deposits under the lake bed and use Little Fish Lake to dispose of its tailings in accordance with the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations, which enable fish bearing water bodies to be used as tailing ponds for toxic waste. To offset this loss, Taseko proposed to build a new artificial lake – Prosperity Lake - and stock it with 20,000 rainbow trout.

Bill C-219 was introduced by NDP MP Peter Stoffer as a private member's bill to address the issue of using a natural lake as a tailing pond. Bill C-219 seeks to amend s. 36 the Fisheries Act by adding the following subsection: “(5.1) No lake may be prescribed for the purpose of authorizing the deposit of any quantity or concentration of a deleterious substance or class thereof.” It received its first reading on November 21, 2008 but, to date, has not yet received its second reading.

In Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, 2007 SCBC 1700, the Supreme Court of British Columbia affirmed that the Tsilhquot’in have the right to hunt and trap at the proposed mine’s location. The area is also the subject of a pending court action brought on behalf of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation to seek a declaration of an aboriginal right to fish in Fish Lake. The rights and title claims of other Bands would also have been adversely affected by Taseko’s proposed 125 km transmission line.5

Conclusion

In reaching its decision to not approve the Prosperity Mine, the federal government considered the Panel’s report and agreed with its conclusions about the environmental impacts of the project. Although the Prosperity Mine was not approved, the federal government did approve another gold-copper mine in the region – the Mount Milligan project – on the grounds that its design minimized environmental impacts and that, due to appropriate mitigation measures, the project was not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects. The approval of the Mount Milligan project and the wording of former Minister Prentice’s decision suggest that the door remains open for federal approval of the Prosperity Mine if Taseko can revise its proposal to minimize the adverse environmental impacts and implement appropriate mitigation measures.