B.C. mining company seeks injunction that could set stage for showdown with First Nation

B.C. mining company seeks injunction that could set stage for showdown with First Nation

It’s the latest chapter in the ongoing story of a project that has, in some form, been twice rejected by the federal government.

The request from Taseko is being heard at the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

Members of the Tsilhqot’in Nation have blocked Taseko’s access to the area — located about 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, B.C. — since July 2, according to court documents filed by the company.

The Tsilhqot’in describe the New Prosperity mine project as a direct threat to their way of life, jeopardizing food security and sacred land.

There are grave sites and ceremonial locations at Tetzan Biny (Fish Lake), a lake near the proposed mine site, tribal chairman Chief Joe Alphonse told Star Vancouver earlier this month. “If you look at that lake, it has some of the highest, oldest, archeological findings in the Tsilhqot’in area. It’s a very spiritual area.”

Alphonse said there are also fears that a proposed tailings pond could leech into Tetzan Biny and the nearby Taseko River, putting at risk the wild fish stocks that Tsilhqot’in people rely on for subsistence harvesting and as a draw for backcountry tourism.

The company, meanwhile, says it has done everything that’s been asked of it by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to satisfy concerns over impacts to the lake and to fish habitat.

The project, originally called the Prosperity Mine, was proposed in 2008 by Taseko and included a plan to drain Teztan Biny and turn it into a tailings pond. The project was rejected by the federal government in 2010 over concerns that it would be too damaging to the environment.

So Taseko revamped its proposal, including adding an extra $300 million to the project costs to preserve the lake, and build the tailings pond two kilometers away. It re-applied for federal permits in 2011. Three years later, the New Prosperity Mine project was again rejected by cabinet, for largely the same reasons.

After the rejection in 2014, the company wrote an open letter to then-federal environment minister Leona Aglukkaq, arguing her government had been wrong to deny the permits, in part because the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency review panel put too much emphasis on three areas where it deemed the mine could “likely” cause adverse impacts.

These areas of concern included the impact to water quality, fish and fish habitat in Tetzan Biny, as well as impacts to the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s traditional use of the land, culture and archeological resources.

In 2016, Taseko sued the B.C. and Canadian governments, seeking damages for what it says are failures by the province and the Crown in their “legal duties” to Taseko, and for failing to grant the required permits.

Despite the dual rejections by cabinet and a littany of other legal actions from both sides, Taseko holds a provincial permit for drilling and other exploration work. That permit was issued in July 2017, the day before the B.C. Liberals left office to make way for Premier John Horgan’s NDP government.

The Tsilhqot’in Nation challenged the permit in B.C. supreme court, which delayed exploration work, but the case was ultimately dismissed. The decision was subsequently upheld by the B.C. Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the Nation’s application for leave to appeal the decision to the country’s highest court.

Meanwhile, Taseko is now facing a ticking clock. Under the Environmental Assessment Act, the company’s provincial environmental approval will expire by mid-January if the project hasn’t been “substantially started,” according to court records.

The company has already been given one extension to its permit.

In May, Taseko filed a petition asking the BC Supreme Court to order the province to reconsider the company’s request for a second five-year extension on its environmental assessment certificate.

Earlier this year, the associate deputy minister of environment and climate change strategy issued a decision that he did not have the statutory authority to extend Taseko’s environmental assessment certificate a second time.

On July 2, when Taseko employees and contractors attempted to access the work area, they were turned away.

Three days later, the company filed a civil suit and a related application for the injunction, naming the Tsilhqot’in National Government, Chief Joe Alphonse, Chief Russell Myers Ross, Cecil Grinder, John Doe, Jane Doe, and unknown persons as defendents.

Meanwhile, on July 11, resident Roger William filed an application for an injunction that would halt Taseko’s drilling program until the courts can rule on a civil suit he launched in 2017 on behalf of members of both the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations Government and the Tsilhqot’in Nation against the province and Taseko Mines.

William’s 2017 case asks the court to quash the province’s approval of Taseko’s exploratory work on the basis that it infringes Tsilhqot’in Indigenous rights.

As of its 2016 application, Taseko’s exploratory drilling program included plans for 122 drill sites, 48 kilometres of excavated trails, 20 kilometres of cut lines, a 50-person camp with 11 mobile trailers, storage of 10,000 litres of fuel, 367 trenches or test pits, according to William’s statement of claim.

More to come.

Jesse Winter is an investigative reporter based in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @jwints

Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ainscruickshank

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