The Prosperity mine controversy is set to heat up again Monday, when a federal agency is scheduled to announce whether an environmental assessment is required for the project.
That decision could mark the beginning of a new stage for what proponent Taseko Mines has called New Prosperity: a reworked, more expensive mine plan that aims to address environmental issues that derailed the project last year.
Ottawa nixed a previous Prosperity mine proposal last November, after a federal review panel determined the mine – as then designed – would result in “significant adverse environmental effects.”
Groups opposing the mine, including the Tsilhqot’in National Government, cheered that decision. They’d fought the project in large part because it would destroy Fish Lake, a trout-bearing lake Indian bands say is important for food and cultural reasons.
But Taseko, which has spent years and millions of dollars pursuing the Prosperity project, submitted a revised plan to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. The plan – which the company previously ruled out as too expensive – retains Fish Lake and would push the cost of the mine from $815-million to more than $1-billion.
Taseko says it can afford the higher price tag because metal prices have climbed substantially since 2009, when the company started the environmental review process.
Up until now, the CEAA has never considered a proposal that has been turned down by a federal review panel, then modified and resubmitted.
CEAA accepted Taseko’s revised project description in August, triggering a 90-day timeline until the next step.
Taseko has said it expects CEAA to launch a comprehensive study, one of four types of assessments the agency conducts.
But the CEAA decision could mark the end of the regulatory road for the contentious proposal, says Chris Tollefson, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria.
“We’re into kind of a new ballgame,” Mr. Tollefson said in a recent interview. “The [Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency]has a discretion here. It is not compelled by the law to reopen the process and embark on a new environmental assessment. It has a discretion to decline to do so.”
Federal ministries such as Fisheries and Oceans Canada that are “responsible authorities” under the process are also part of the picture.
“If CEAA is made aware that one of [the responsible authorities]will not grant approval – I would say they have discretion not to process the application,” Mr. Tollefson said.
The federal review panel found the project would result in adverse effects on fish and fish habitat by draining Fish Lake, even though the earlier proposal called for building a new lake to replace it.
Taseko says its reconfigured mine plan not only saves Fish Lake but protects fish habitat in nearby Fish Creek.
The federal review panel process for Prosperity cost about $2.2-million, with Taseko responsible for about $1.6-million of that amount, according to CEAA.
Taseko has spent $30-million on Prosperity over the past five years, with about $18-million of that related to environmental assessment activities, spokesman Brian Battison said on Friday.
The proposed mine, which would be located about 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, has been a flashpoint for debate. Supporters cite hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic benefits the project would create while opponents insist the project would result in irreversible harm to fish and wildlife.
B.C. approved the project last year under its own environmental process, concluding environmental impacts were justified. New mines are a key element of B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s new job plan.