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Fish Lake mine offers test case for Tory environmental rules

Vancouver Police look on as members of the Tsilhqot'in national government protest a proposed mine in their territory outside the Taseko headquarters in Vancouver, B.C. Friday, June 1, 2012.

Jonathan Hayward/REUTERS

The proposal for a copper mine near Fish Lake, B.C., is back on the front burner. Once again environmentalists and first nations are pitted against non-native residents and the provincial government, with Ottawa acting as referee.

A panel has been at work on the file for a month. A decision is due in November. Opponents of the mine can take comfort in knowing that the new assessment will take place under existing, stricter, rules.

Proponents can take comfort in knowing that, if this decision goes against them, a third try might well go their way.

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The original proposal would have seen Taseko Mines build an open-pit gold and copper mine that would have injected $1.5 billion and 1,000 jobs into the Cariboo region about 125 km from the community of Williams Lake, where the economy has been badly damaged by the pine beetle infestation and the downturn in the lumber industry.

But that proposal would have destroyed Fish Lake, home to 90,000 rainbow trout and an area of deep spiritual significance for the Tsilhqot'in first nation.

A provincial environmental assessment approved the mine, but a separate federal assessment strongly recommended against it, and Jim Prentice, then the environment minister, upheld that recommendation in November 2010.

On to Round Two.

The new proposal from Taseko (which did not respond to a request for an interview) would preserve Fish Lake by digging the mine around it. But a smaller lake would be destroyed and the habitat of the grizzly bear population would be compromised. The Tsilhqot'in remain utterly determined to keep the mine off what they consider sacred land.

Environmentalists also remain opposed. If tailings from the mine are stored anywhere near Fish Lake, toxins are bound to leach into it, maintained George Heyman, of the B.C. chapter of the Sierra Club.

"British Columbians want development that is sound, that's sustainable for the future and not one in which we simply weaken or flout our environmental laws," he said in an interview.

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This review will take place under the existing rules for environmental assessments. The panel will ask itself whether the new proposal answers the objections raised in the earlier report. It will hold public hearings and consult both native and non-native residents. It has until November to complete the work.

But Joe Alphonse, tribal chair of the Tsilhqot'in National Government, fears that even if the panel once rules against the mine, Environment Minister Peter Kent will overrule it.

As evidence, he points to the Harper government's determination to accelerate reviews and to hand most future reviews off to the provinces — one of the most contentious parts of the omnibus bill now making its way through Parliament.

"The writing's on the wall," Mr. Alphonse warned, Monday. And he had a warning for the federal government: if it pushes ahead with the mine against Tsilhqot'in opposition, expect to be taken to court.

The Tsilhqot'in are right to worry: The Taseko mine is exactly the sort of project that a federal review might veto for environmental reasons, but a province approve for economic ones.

And the omnibus bill, if passed, would make it likely that future reviews of this kind would be handled by provinces.

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There is another side to this, though. Most of the non-native residents of Williams Lake and environs are solidly behind the mine, along with the B.C. government and the B.C. caucus of the federal Conservatives. (Williams Lake Mayor Kerry Cook and I tried to talk, but we kept missing each other's calls.)

People are quick to defend environmental principles if the dispute is in a place far removed and their own livelihoods aren't at risk. The view is often very different when you're trying to make a go of it for yourself, your family and your town.

There are few questions more vexed than what to do about the proposed mine at Fish Lake.

Editor's note: A previous web version of this story contained an incorrect spelling of George Heyman's name.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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