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Fish Lake, B.C. (Sibylle Zilker / The Globe and Mail/Sibylle Zilker / The Globe and Mail)
Fish Lake, B.C. (Sibylle Zilker / The Globe and Mail/Sibylle Zilker / The Globe and Mail)

Natives wary of Taseko's $1-billion mine project Add to ...

Even before federal regulators have officially released a revised proposal for the $1-billion Prosperity mine - dubbed "New Prosperity" by its backers - the project has emerged as a polarizing issue.

Taseko Mines says its gold and copper mining project would be an economic boon for Williams Lake and the rest of the province. The company also said it's willing to spend $300-million more than was budgeted in its previous plan to address the environmental concerns of Indian bands that have fought the project.

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Those bands said the reworked design does not address issues flagged in a federal review.

Relations are frosty and no talks are scheduled.

"We have tried to engage on an ongoing basis," Taseko chief executive officer Russell Hallbauer said last week, adding that he wrote to native leaders in the hopes of discussing the revised proposal before it was submitted.

Band leaders say Taseko merely repackaged a bad proposal.

Both Taseko and the Tsilhqot'in National Government are pressing their case with politicians, the media and the public. On June 6, Taseko announced it had carried out its promise to submit a revised project description to Ottawa, and launched a website that allows people to submit questions and comments about the mine. On June 8, the Tsilhqot'in National Government issued its own press release, saying the company's proposal was submitted with "zero consultation" with the TNG and calling on the provincial and federal governments to reject it.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has yet to post Taseko's revised project description on its website.

The agency is reviewing the description and will post it "once it has been determined to be adequate," a CEAA spokeswoman said.

At the heart of the wrangle is Fish Lake, or Teztan Biny, a 111-hectare lake once featured on a postcard for a provincial tourism campaign.

Taseko's former mine plan called for draining the lake, filling it with waste rock from mining operations and creating a new, bigger lake to make up for the loss of fish habitat.

B.C. approved that plan in early 2010. Ottawa rejected it in November, 2010. Jim Prentice, the federal environment minister at the time, said "the significant adverse environmental effects of the Prosperity project cannot be justified as it is currently proposed."

That sent Taseko back to the drawing board - and to previously conducted studies of alternative scenarios that would save Fish Lake but cost more.

Taseko acquired the Prosperity deposit in 1969, and it's been off and on the development track since. The most recent round of work started about five years ago, when copper was trading for about $1 (U.S.) a pound and gold for about $475 an ounce. The revised plan is based on prices of $1.65 a pound for copper and $650 an ounce for gold.

"If copper prices were still where we expected them to be when we started this process, we would not be having this conversation, because the project would still be uneconomic," Mr. Hallbauer said.

The Prosperity project is bound up in longstanding issues relating to aboriginal rights and title, including a Tsilhqot'in court case that dates back to 1990 and is still under way.

Taseko operates one other mine in B.C., the Gibraltar copper mine near Williams Lake, and has two other development projects.

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