By Judith Lavoie • Wednesday, July 19, 2017 - 10:52
One of the first controversies likely to land on the desk of newly minted Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Minister Michelle Mungall is what to do about the proposed massive Ajax gold and copper mine on the outskirts of Kamloops that is opposed by Kamloops city council and the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation.
“I think this will be one of their first tests and it will be interesting to see how a new government will handle it,” said Councillor Denis Walsh, a vocal opponent of the proposed mine.
“With the change in government, I am optimistic that we will at least get a fair hearing from the minister… . (Former mines minister) Bill Bennett and Michelle Mungall are two different characters and I am optimistic about at least having a meeting with her to express our concerns and her listening to us,” Walsh said.
Debate over the Ajax mine has seethed in Kamloops since the initial proposal, almost seven years ago, by Polish mining company KGHM Polska Miedz for a massive open-pit mine less than two kilometres from homes, with a tailings pond and dam sitting above a city of more than 90,000 people.
Supporters of the $1.3-billion project have pointed to the 500 well-paying, full-time jobs that the mine would create, rising to about 1,800 jobs during construction, and a community benefits agreement worth $3.8 million a year.
But opponents say the mine — which would be three kilometres long and one-and-a-half kilometres wide — is too big and too close.
Concerns include dust, vibration from blasting, slope stability and the safety of water supplies. In the wake of the 2014 Mount Polley tailings pond collapse, many are also uneasy about the proximity of the tailings pond, uphill from homes and schools.
“I totally believe that the worst thing that could happen to Kamloops would be that mine,” Walsh said.
That opposition gained steam this week when city council voted twice to draft a letter to senior levels of government saying council is not in favour of the mine being built on its southern border.
The first vote, Monday evening, at a special council meeting, tied the letter of opposition to the question of whether to continue talking to the provincial Environmental Assessment Office and the result was four to two in favour. The second vote on Tuesday separated the two issues and the vote was 5-1 in favour of making the city’s opposition clear to the federal and provincial governments.
The decision on whether the mine is approved will rest with both senior levels of government and the provincial EAO is expected to make a recommendation to the ministry this fall.
By-elections for two empty council seats and the mayor’s chair will be held Sept 30, but, by then, the EAO process will have been completed, so it is unlikely to be an election issue, Walsh said.
The main concern of councillors was the health and wellbeing of residents, said Walsh, adding that the proposal is fraught with uncertainties and risks.
Acting Mayor Arjun Singh, speaking at the council meeting, said the positives are far outweighed by the negative health impacts.
In addition, it has been a sore point that the previous BC Liberal government was not willing to make accommodation for problems likely to arise with B.C.’s first urban mine, even though the concerns are very different from those created by a mine in the middle of nowhere, Walsh said.
Earlier this year, after an exhaustive review of the project, the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation (SSN) announced its opposition to Ajax and said “free, prior and informed consent” would be withheld.
The mine would include development around Jacko Lake, known as Pipsell by indigenous communities, an area that is profoundly sacred and culturally important to the SSN.
When the SSN decision was announced, Chief Fred Seymour of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc, said it was necessary to oppose the project for the sake of the health of the community.
“For our two communities, united through SSN, it does not make sense to sacrifice for all time all that we have in Pipsell to obtain limited benefits which will last for only 25 years,” Seymour said.
“Many impacts were not, and cannot be, monetized, including the adverse impacts on our cultural heritage as well as impacts on the environment,” he said.
The decision was supported by 30 organizations ranging from the David Suzuki Foundation and Sierra Club B.C. to MiningWatch Canada and Kamloops Physicians for a Healthy Environment. The assessment process has raised the ire of many mine opponents and Walsh also wants to see a complete overhaul of “unacceptable, obsolete and unfair” provincial mining regulations.
In a letter written to the NDP, Green and BC Liberal leaders, Walsh asked for the Ajax permitting process to be halted until the province undertakes a judicial review of mining regulations, followed by the necessary reforms.
The four major concerns Walsh sets out in the letter are failure to respect First Nations rights, failure to allow municipalities any control, failure to eliminate new tailings pond dams as recommended following the Mount Polley disaster and failure to separate monitoring and enforcement activities from the Energy and Mines Ministry as recommended by the auditor general.
Walsh noted that he is not alone in wanting to see changes in mining regulations and pointed out that a report from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre said “the ramshackle regulatory system governing B.C.’s mining industry is profoundly dysfunctional” and that an Amnesty International report found the Mount Polley disaster raises serious questions about the province’s ability to protect British Columbians.
“It’s a flawed process and the deck is stacked in favour of proponents,” said Walsh, who has not yet received any replies to his letter.