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Ottawa is in a box over New Prosperity mine

The B.C. government has not been subtle in pushing Ottawa to approve the New Prosperity mine.

In a case of gold fever, the province has shrugged off two damning federal environment reviews in the pursuit of what is believed to be one of the largest undeveloped copper-gold deposits in Canada.

The province's environmental review gave Prosperity the go-ahead. When the first federal review concluded the mine would have a "high-magnitude, long-term and irreversible effect" on the environment, B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett dismissed the impact on a "tiny little pothole of a lake." And when Ottawa rejected the original project, Premier Christy Clark set it at the top of her federal-provincial agenda when she advocated for New Prosperity at her first meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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All of this political pressure from British Columbia still may not be enough for the federal government to say "yes".

Like Ms. Clark's B.C. Liberals, the federal Conservative government is keen on resource extraction, and this proposal would live up to its name for those in line to profit.

But Ottawa is in a box. When cabinet was presented with the first environmental review, the minister responsible, Jim Prentice, described the findings as "scathing" and rejected the project.

The proposal was scaled back and resubmitted, but the second review, released last week, was no less damning. It found the development of New Prosperity would result in significant adverse environmental effects on water quality, fish and wetland ecosystems. It also warned of risks to the South Chilcotin grizzly-bear population and moose.

Mr. Bennett believes Mr. Prentice could have, and should have, come to a different conclusion three years ago. "I think it was naive. It was naive and mostly political and I hope they don't make the same decision going forward."

It was naive, he said, because no one should be surprised that building a large open-pit metal mine would have an environmental impact. Plus, Mr. Bennett believes that the mining company could find ways, once it got to the construction stage, to mitigate the damage. "I believe, in my experience of watching the construction of mines, the company will be able to figure out this issue of ground water," he said.

The federal cabinet has 120 days to make up its mind on New Prosperity. Reversing Mr. Prentice's decision would not be easy, Mr. Bennett concedes. "That takes some courage and we'll see if they have any."

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However, this is not just a dispute between two governments over the environment versus economic values. It has a significant First Nations component. Opposition has been led by the Tsilhqot'in National Government – representing six First Nations in the region. The panel found last week that the loss of cultural heritage by the Tsilhqot'in people "is substantial and would impair their ability to sustain their cultural identities and way of life."

And that, said NDP Leader Adrian Dix, is the reason Ottawa should ignore Mr. Bennett's challenge.

"Based on the evidence, the project shouldn't go ahead," Mr. Dix said. He predicted the political desire in B.C. to grant the mine approval will trigger conflict – and that will result in fewer mines being built in B.C.

The federal government should, at least, hold off on a decision on Taseko Mines' proposal until it has read a report from the Prime Minister's special envoy on First Nations and energy development due at the end of the month.

That report was commissioned to help forge a pathway for energy exports across B.C. But it will likely include advice that will transfer to the resource sector more broadly. If Ottawa wants to avoid another Northern Gateway battle with B.C. First Nations, it cannot brush aside the objections of the Tsilhqot'in, whose ancestral burial grounds could end up under a tailings pond.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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