A small native community in central British Columbia has launched a health study into the possible impacts of a copper mine, despite assurances from the company that its research shows there's no reason for concern.
Chief Bernie Mack of the 180-member Esdilagh First Nation said as tailings from the Gibraltar Mine build up around reserve lands, concerns are growing that pollutants may be seeping into the ecosystem.
"Number one thing is, our community members fear the resources and the water around the mine are contaminated. So why we are doing this research is to find out how safe the ecosystem and the health of the environment is," Mr. Mack said Thursday.
A research team from the University of Victoria and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, a Switzerland-based agency that works globally, will conduct the research.
Mr. Mack said many Esdilagh members grew up with the mine almost in their back yards, but they have become increasingly concerned about the operation.
"When I say we have reserves next to the mine, I mean [they are] within 250 metres from a waste-rock pile and the mine is growing. [With] their next pit development, there will be a mountain of waste rock growing, just overshadowing our reserve," he said. "And that's where we're looking to do this research, kind of immediately near the mine. What I'm trying to [determine is if] the moose, deer, the willows, the raspberries [are] safe."
He said band members have stopped fishing for trout in lakes around the mine and many no longer hunt for moose or deer nearby.
"I'm not opposed to economic development. I'm probably one of the most pro-mining of the Tsilhqot'in chiefs," said Mr. Mack, referring to the Tsilhqot'in Nation, which involves several bands. "I'm trying to respect the environment but I also ask how deep the impacts are."
Brian Battison, vice-president of Corporate Affairs for Taseko, said he's disappointed the Esdilagh are launching their own study, because the company has gathered data for many years without finding any problems.
"We have no concerns that there may be any health or environmental risks associated with the project," said Mr. Battison, whose company bought Gibraltar in 1999, reopening the mine in 2004 only after investing $700-million to modernize operations.
"We [and the previous owners] have been collecting and monitoring the impact of that operation for 40 years," he said. "So we have soil and water and vegetation and fauna [data]. We monitor those things. We have all of that. A mountain of information."
Mr. Battison said the company has been working with Xats'ull, a Shuswap First Nation that is located downstream of the mine on the Fraser River, on a comprehensive human health and ecological risk study. He said the company also tried to get the Esdilagh involved in that project.
"To execute this study we've been trying repeatedly to meet with the Esdilagh First Nation. And they repeatedly cancelled the meetings," he said. "It's pretty disappointing and discouraging to, in spite of all this effort we're making, to have them come out and issue a press release to suggest that we're being unco-operative or we don't care, or we're not interested."
Mr. Battison, whose company has repeatedly clashed with the Tsilhqot'in National Government over New Prosperity, a proposed gold mine in the region, said that dispute may have set the Esdilagh against Taseko Mines.
He said the company will keep trying to meet with the Esdilagh to discuss the firm's research. "We want to give people the facts and try to bring whatever anxiety level they have, bring it down to what really are the current and known facts," said Mr. Battison.