De Beers Canada and its partner Mountain Province Diamonds have received conditional approval from the Northwest Territory's environmental review panel for their proposed Gahcho Kue open-pit diamond mining project.
The report from the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board says the three-mine project has the potential to harm aquatic life in Kennady Lake, as well as the Bathurst caribou herd – raising concerns about the impact on hunting.
But the board's panel says the project has economic merit and the environmental impact can be reduced to an acceptable level with appropriate measures.
"De Beers made important commitments to minimize impacts from the Project on the environment including water quality, fish, caribou, other wildlife, air quality, and people," said the board's report to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt, who will make the final decision on whether the project proceeds and under what conditions.
"These commitments form part of the Project and need to be implemented."
The project includes digging an open pit diamond mine to recover diamonds from three different pits over an 11-year mine life. Getting access to those deposits involve draining parts of Kennady Lake and refilling them when the mining is over.
The companies estimate the Gahcho Kue project could employ up to 700 people during construction and between 360 and 380 during operations.
During hearings on the project, several local aboriginal groups raised concerns about its likely impacts on Kennady Lake as well as the Bathurst caribou herd, which has only recently stabilized after a 90-per-cent drop in the 1980s to today's 32,000 animals.
"As far as we are concerned, the diamonds are not going anywhere, there is no rush to extract them right now and risk environmental and social degradation," said Dora Enzoe, chief of the Lutsel K'e First Nation, in her closing submission to the board.
The Deninu Ku'e also expressed concerns.
"Kennady Lake will totally be used and forever changed, making it unavailable to our members initially and eventually forcing our members to relocate from the Kennedy Lake area," said the band's final submission.
"Fish will be totally taken from our food source and caribou will have another mine to contend with as they struggle through our territory making it harder for our members to rely on caribou as our food source. Our members will be subjected to fly-in, fly-out job prospects, making it hard on family relationships."
In a letter to Mr. Valcourt, the panel recommends the project be allowed to proceed subject to conditions.
Those conditions are intended to reduce the impacts of the mine site and winter access road on caribou and caribou habitat, minimize the project's contribution to cumulative effects on caribou and require follow-up programs to address impacts to water, fish, caribou, other wildlife and socio-economic worries.
Under legislation recently passed by the Harper Conservatives, Mr. Valcourt has four months to respond to the recommendations.
At least one other major resource project – the Izok Lake mine proposal from Chinese-owned MMG Resources – is also on Mr. Valcourt's desk, where he is in the process of deciding how to conduct and environmental assessment for that massive project.