Mining should not come ahead of clean water


Chief Bev Sellars, The Hill Times –

Date of publication: 
12 September 2011

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C.-Mining Association of Canada President Pierre Gratton correctly noted in last week’s issue of The Hill Times that mining has the potential to be a major driver of Canada’s future economy and prosperity.

However, successfully profiting from the global need for metals and minerals will involve great responsibility and require careful planning and reforms at home. While there are some hopeful signs, Canada has a long way to go before it has an industry of which it can truly be proud.

Here in resource-rich British Columbia, the situation is disheartening. Unproductive confrontation prevails over positive reformation, despite the numerous court rulings recognizing the rights of First Nations, the majority of whom have never entered into treaties, and despite the failure to open a new major metals mine in 15 years.

For First Nations, it remains a question of balance. Mining interests seem to have more rights than anyone else.

Online free-entry claims staking guarantees many conflicts and wasted efforts. Mineral exploration and mine development are exempted from many land use plans, as is First Nations involvement. The current British Columbia environmental assessment process supports all mining initiatives, is too quick to dismiss environmental concerns, and ignores First Nations rights.

The federal government rejection on Nov. 2 of Taseko Mines Ltd.‘s proposed Prosperity Mine in Tsilhqot’in territory should have been a wakeup call. The project should never have been pursued as the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans warned the company and British Columbia from 1995 onwards that it was no-go project. Yet the existing system in British Columbia encouraged and abetted the wasting of a reported $100-million and 17 years on this ill-fated project.

Sadly, no lesson was learned. The company, backed by the industry, is already back with the submission of an option that the company itself had previously declared worse for the environment than the original one. It changes none of the findings of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency review panel that compelled the federal government to reject the original proposal. To proceed would further waste public resources on an unnecessary process, and generate even more unnecessary conflict before reaching the same conclusions.

Equally unfortunate is the British Columbia government and industry promotion of the Mount Milligan mine project as the epitome of consultation with First Nations, when it was and continues to be based on divide and conquer tactics between First Nations communities and has caused great harm.

As for the argument that killing lakes to build mines is an environmental necessity, we in British Columbia have good reason to see things very differently. The rejected Prosperity and Kemess North mines proposed destroying lakes because this was the cheapest, quickest option-not because it was better for the environment. What is more, the regulatory loophole in our water protection laws now being exploited by the industry was only intended to be used in rare cases where it was the only way to clean up pollution from abandoned or closed mines. In British Columbia, two-thirds of our 1,800 old, non-producing mines are still polluting our lands and waters, yet the industry seems to have little interest or appetite for addressing this toxic legacy.

Despite this dismal record, there is hope. For example, the land use plan and government-to-government decision-sharing agreement signed by the Taku River Tlingit and British Columbia are a precedent-setting example of how it is possible to get beyond conflicts over mining proposals through a positive new approach.

But the genuine reforms needed to achieve responsible mining and generate environmentally sustainable jobs and development will not happen as long as government and industry avoid talking with First Nations about the kind of mining that we want to see.

We need to get our priorities straight-mining should not come ahead of clean water, our health or our longstanding uses of the land. We need real partnership-based on recognition of our constitutional rights and the international commitments that both Canada and the mining industry have made. We have to talk about a tenure and exploration system that prevents millions of investor and taxpayer dollars being wasted on divisive, destructive projects that should never have been proposed. Then we just might have a chance to produce a mining sector of which we really can be proud.

Bev Sellars is chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation and chair of B.C.‘s First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM).