Joint review panel rejects Northgate’s Kemess North Mine

Story by Lloyd Dolha

In an unprecedented move applauded by First Nations and environmentalists alike, a joint federal/provincial environmental review panel has rejected a mining company’s plan to essentially kill off a freshwater lake in north western B.C. as part of its expansion plans.

“The Tse Key Nay [First Nation] congratulates the panel members on their brave recommendations and calls on both governments to follow the panel’s lead and protect Amazay Lake,” said Grand Chief Gordon Pierre, who represents a coalition of First Nations opposed to the tailings proposal plan.

“This is not just about protecting this lake for First Nations people, this is about protecting all lakes for Canadians,” added Pierre.”There are 20 lakes in Canada facing similar mining proposals. We are happy that a precedent has been set in the TseKeh Nay territory: Killing lakes is unacceptable.”

Pierre went on to note that the Tse Keh Nay are not opposed to development in their territories.

“However, we are against development such as Northgate’s proposal to kill a lake and the source of our communities drinking water.”

The Carrier Sekani Tribal Council commended the perseverance of the Tse Keh Nay who have fought for four years against the development.

“Our Tse Keh Nay neigbours have endured a lot of stress and pressure from government, industry and other stakeholders to give up their fight,” said CSTC tribal chief David Luggi. “It is because of their determination that Amazay Lake will be saved from destruction, and industry will understand that this type of destructive development is not welcome on our lands.”

Northgate Minerals planned to dig a second pit north of its existing Kemess South mine located about 430 kilometres northwest of Prince George. The company said the expansion would have secured the 475 jobs of workers at the Kemess South mine by providing two years of construction and another 11 years of mining employment at the site. Northgate has determined the Kemess North mine could contain more than four million ounces of gold and copper worth about $8 billion.
But the company proposed disposing of an estimated 414 tons of waste rock and tailings into nearby Amazay (also known as Duncan) Lake.

In the September 17 release of the final report, the panel determined:

“In the panel’s view, the economic and social benefits provided by the project, on balance, are outweighed by the risks of significant adverse environmental, social and cultural effects, some of which may not emerge until many years after mining operations cease,” states the final report of the review panel.

“The panel recommends to the federal and provincial ministers of the environment that the project not be approved as proposed.”

The panel report further noted that the project’s benefits would accrue only a relatively short period of time (two years construction and 11 years of mining production) while, “Key adverse effects include the loss of a natural lake with important spiritual values for aboriginal people, and the creation of a long-tern legacy of environmental management obligations at the mine site to protect downstream water quality and public safety. These obligations may continue for several thousand years …”

At the same time, the panel recognized that governments in Ottawa and Victoria could choose to ignore its 300 pages of findings. The report offers another 33 detailed recommendations intended to mitigate adverse effects in the event the Harper and Campbell governments decide to approve the Kemess North mine project.

“Over the next several days, Northgate will be reviewing the details of the report and speaking with the federal and provincial authorities,” stated a company release within hours of the review panel’s report release.

Kemess South, the publically traded company’s only active mine, is scheduled to wind down operations beginning in 2009.
“Ministers could disagree with the panel’s advice and approve the project,” stresses the Northgate release, which also noted that the panel shared its conclusion that “Duncan (Amazay)lake is the only waste disposal alternative which is environmentally effective, and technically and economically feasible.”

Northgate Minerals CEO Ken Stowe angered BC First Nations when he suggested that the Tse Keh Nay and Gitxan leadership are unrepresentative of community views on the project at a mining conference in Denver on September 25th.

“The people that are most impacted probably have had the least to say,” said Stowe, in reference to local First Nations community members. “You’ve heard the least from them.”
“You’ve heard more from the political arms of First Nations, who are very outspoken,” said Stowe.

The First Nations Summit, which speaks for First Nations on treaty negotiations in the province, strongly rejects those assertions.

“In this case, it is nonsense for Mr. Stowe to suggest that the First Nations leadership have not properly represented the views of their communities,” said Grand Chief Ed John, a member of the First Nations Summit political executive.

“He’s done himself and the mining industry disfavour by insulting the local First Nation leadership by suggesting they do not represent their communities on this particular matter,” added John.

Among other comments Stowe made was a sarcastic observation that “First Nations were quoted by the joint review panel that they speak to bears, so it’s pretty hard to talk science.”

“Mr. Stowe has known for years the feelings of the communities regarding the destruction of Amazay Lake,” concluded John.
“And so now the panel’s report has been received favourably by the communities.”