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What does pulling plug on Fish Lake mine portend for Potash decision?

Environment Minister Jim Prentice leaves a hastily called news conference in the foyer of the House of Commons on Nov. 2, 2010.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Harper government has ignored the pleas of a provincial premier, overridden the strong advice of its western MPs and risked alienating the party's core supporters over its decision to protect a vital natural resource. And it has nothing to do with potash.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced late Thursday that the proposed Prosperity Mine at Fish Lake in British Columbia's Interior will not be allowed to proceed, because the environmental impact would be too severe.

"The project as it was proposed would result in the destruction of Fish Lake, and...the complex and highly productive ecosystem that included not only the lake but dozens of connecting streams, wetlands and aquatic life," Mr. Prentice told reporters at a hastily-called news conference Tuesday afternoon.

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The government was bound, he concluded, to respect a federal environmental assessment warning against allowing the mine to proceed.

"We have an obligation to accept that report, consider it, weigh it and then make a decision," Mr. Prentice said. "And that's what we've done."

The Fish Lake decision will also reverberate when the Harper government announces Wednesday whether it will allow the hostile takeover bid by Anglo-Australian firm BHP Billiton Ltd. for Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan, despite the strong objections of Premier Brad Wall.

If the Conservatives reject the takeover, that decision will be coupled with Fish Lake in accusations that the Conservatives have abandoned all respect for the Western base of the party. But if the Tories allow the takeover, they will couple it with the Fish Lake decision when arguing that the government decides each case on its merits, regardless of local political pressure.

Taseko Mines Ltd. wanted to create an open pit copper-and-gold mine 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake. The mine is strongly supported by many local businesses and residents, and Gordon Campbell's provincial government approved its construction, even though the mine would have destroyed Fish Lake and the surrounding ecosystem.

The lumber industry in the region has been devastated by the pine beetle infestation and the collapse of the American housing market. The mine was projected to inject $5-billion into the local economy and create almost a thousand direct and indirect jobs.

"The area is in absolute, desperate need of an economic lifesaver," said Dick Harris, the area's Conservative MP and chair of the B.C. caucus when asked about the mine in September, "and if ever there was one, it was this mine."

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He added: "I haven't talked to anybody in my caucus who has had a disparaging word about the mine." Mr. Harris could not be reached for reaction to the decision Tuesday.

The economic benefits of the mine convinced the B.C. government that it should go ahead despite the severe environmental impact and the fierce opposition of the Tsilhqot'in (pronounced and sometimes spelled Chilcotin) first nation.

But the mine also required federal regulatory approval, and the federal environmental assessment was "scathing," as Mr. Prentice observed Tuesday. The report concluded that the mine would produce "high magnitude, long-term and irreversible" damage.

"It was probably the most condemning report that I've seen" since he became Environment Minister, Mr. Prentice said.

Nonetheless, there was considerable speculation that the Conservatives would become the first federal government to override a negative environmental assessment, because of the political and economic pressure in support of it.

NDP MP Fin Donnelly, the party's fisheries and oceans critic, congratulated the Conservative government on its decision. Williams Lake "needs economic development after being hit hard by forestry downturn," he said. "However, people should not have to choose between work and a healthy environment."

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The impact of the decision will be felt locally, provincially and federally.

Tensions have run high between the region's native and non-native population over the mine, and many in B.C. warned what one B.C. cabinet minister warned against "a bunch of Toronto MPs" interfering in the province's business.

Mr. Prentice said that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had contacted Mr. Campbell to inform him of the decision, but would not disclose the Premier's reaction.

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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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