Federal Decision on Proposed Prosperity Mine: First Nations’ rights and fish-filled lakes not for sale to the mining industry

Jamie Kneen Communications and Outreach Coordinator responsible for: strategic research, social media, and public engagement; our Africa program, environmental assessment, and uranium mining.

On November 2, 2010, after an extensive review process the federal government rejected Taseko Mines Limited’s proposal for an open pit gold and copper mine in the heart of the Tsilhqot’in Territory, 125 km west of Williams Lake, BC. The proposed Prosperity mine would have drained Fish Lake (Teztan Biny) to make way for the pit and waste rock storage area, and filled in Little Fish Lake and Fish Creek with tailings. The area has great significance to the Tsilhqot’in, who have old homesteads, burial sites, and traditional gathering areas surrounding the lakes. The Tsilhqot’in were joined in their opposition by the Secwepemc Nation, whose territory the mine’s power corridor would have cut through.

This is only the third mining project to have ever been refused approval through a federal environmental assessment. It has shown the value of rigorous and transparent reviews of large, controversial projects under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

George Hyman of Sierra Club BC had this to say about the differences in BC and Federal processes: “Today’s decision illustrates why devolving environmental assessment to B.C. to ‘streamline’ the process would be a disaster B.C. gave the green light to this project, putting short-term economic interests ahead of species, ecosystems and First Nations rights... Today’s decision points to serious flaws in the B.C. environmental assessment process.”

Responses to the decision by Taseko and Randy Hawes, BC’s Minister State of Mining, have suggested that they may revisit the project after they hear what the federal government wants in order to approve the project. It seems after 15 years of the Department of Fisheries an Oceans (DFO) saying “no” to destroying a productive healthy lake they still don’t get it.

Leading up to the decision, the Mining Association of BC essentially maintained the sky would fall in on the industry if the project was not approved. The hollowness of this rhetoric was revealed when, following the decision, the Association’s comments were greatly toned down and it pointed to the many other projects on tap in the province in an attempt to reassure potential investors.

An article in the Vancouver Sun suggested that rejecting the project made investing in BC equivalent to playing roulette and that “the data that normally inform investment decisions -- for instance, Prosperity held the promise of 13.3 million ounces of gold and 5.3 billion pounds of copper over the life of the mine -- were rendered meaningless.” The rejection of this project is a clear message to proponents and their investors that projects with such massive environmental and social consequences and that are staunchly opposed by First Nations are not a wise investment. Far from a roulette game, it’s simply a matter of investors applying due diligence.

Xeni Gwet’in Chief Marilyn Baptiste, whose community is closest to the proposed mine site, made this reflection on the decision: “The fact that a company would spend so many years and so much money to develop and promote this Prosperity project, despite the clear and legitimate First Nations’ along with DFO’s objections, demonstrates the need to reform BC’s free-entry, on-line staking system. This proposal could not have been more guaranteed to alienate First Nations.”

In the next year MiningWatch will be working with our First Nations and NGO allies to protect the federal environmental assessment process and to reform the mining laws in BC.