Kemess: British Columbia First Nations Organise to Protect Amazay (Duncan Lake) from Mine Waste

Five First Nations in BC have won agreement from Northgate Minerals that it will not mine without First Nations approval. They are also demanding that any environmental assessment of the project be done by a tri-partite panel, including First Nations as equal representatives with federal and provincial governments.

Northgate Minerals Corporation has applied for a permit to open a new gold and copper mine (Kemess North) in the Omineca Mountain range in north-central British Columbia, adjacent to their existing Kemess South mine.

As part of its application the company is proposing to dam a pristine, high-elevation lake, in addition to dumping into it 750 million tons of tailings and waste rock. The Sustu'dene (also known as the Bear Lake people) call this lake "Amazay," though it appears on the map as Duncan Lake.

There are five Aboriginal groups with interests in this area: Fort Connelly First Nation (Bear Lake people), Gitxsan House of Nii Kyap, Kwadacha First Nation, Takla Lake First Nation, and Tsay Keh Dene First Nation. They have used the land in and around the area in question for countless generations. All of them are involved in the BC treaty process.

These five groups have united in order to challenge the proposed use of Amazay (Duncan Lake) as a dump. This would effectively result in the complete annihilation of all aquatic life in the lake, in addition to drastically altering a fragile high-elevation ecosystem.

In January, 2004, the company proposed 16 options for waste rock and tailings storage but stated the only economically feasible option was to use Amazay (Duncan Lake) as a dump. They continue to state that if they cannot use this lake they will walk away from their application.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has a policy that prevents the destruction of fish habitat. Still, a federal order-in-council and Cabinet approval can circumvent this policy. Consequently, on March 16, 2004, the provincial minister for energy and mines, Richard Neufeld, lobbied the Fisheries minister to permit tailings and waste rock to be dumped into the lake.

Northgate's current mine, Kemess South, was opened in 1996. This mine resulted from a deal between the province and another mining company, Royal Oak Mines Inc. This deal saw the province expeditiously approving a mining permit for that company at Kemess Creek after it had revoked a permit in northwestern British Columbia in order to create Tatshenshini Park. In addition, the company was awarded a $160 million compensation package. As a result of the province rushing the permitting process for this mine First Nations with interests in the area were not properly consulted or accommodated. In 2000, Northgate Minerals acquired the Kemess South mine.

The Kemess South mine is located 5 km south of the proposed Kemess North project and is the second largest in the country, annually excavating more material than all other gold and copper mines in Canada combined. It employs approximately 400 people. To avoid generating and leaching acid, the huge amounts of mine tailings and waste rock must be kept under water, so a dam was constructed to create a vast holding pond. The dam is the third largest in the world.

First Nations had protested that burial grounds were disturbed during the construction of the mine and mill site. Kemess South has had an enormous impact on the land and should the Kemess North mine proceed the cumulative impacts will be that much greater.

From a backgrounder prepared by Five Nations. For further comment please contact Justa Monk, 5 Nations spokesperson at (250) 961-3925 or for assistance contact Kevin Ward at (604) 314-4083.