August 25, 2013 - 5:06 AM
VANCOUVER - It's the tenth largest undeveloped gold-copper deposit in the world — at least nine-million wedding rings' worth — and for half a century since its discovery, the deposit has remained buried among the pristine lakes and mountains of British Columbia's wild Chilcotin region.
Opponents of a billion-dollar plan to develop the site want it to stay that way. The company behind the proposal that has already been rejected once says it has a new plan that will save a lake of cultural significance to First Nations — contrary to the original plan — and put millions of dollars into provincial coffers.
Public hearings on the New Prosperity mine proposal wrap up today following five weeks of hearings in nearby communities, and the proponent and opponents remain deeply divided.
"What it is we propose to do is not unusual. It's an engineering exercise, not a science experiment," John McManus, senior vice-president of operations for Taseko told the panel on the opening day of the latest set of hearings.
It's a "low-risk, high-reward" proposal in the best interests of the region, the province and the country, said Greg Yelland, the company's chief engineer.
"We've done what we were asked to do. We've listened to the community and re-designed this project to address the issues raised in 2010 and we will continue to engage and listen to the community affected by this project," he said.
The latest round of hearings drew comment from dozens of First Nations groups, members of the public, local business people and interest groups including Amnesty International and Mining Watch Canada.
"We don't feel that there will be any way to protect Fish Lake," Chief Roger William of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation, said in an interview.
Although First Nations have been the most vocal opponents, it's not an issue of aboriginal versus non-aboriginal, said David Richardson, of the Fish Lake Alliance, in a statement filed with the panel ahead of final submissions today.
"We think many residents of the Cariboo have bought into a hollow promise of economic prosperity based on exaggerated rhetoric," he wrote. "The group that would benefit most if this mine is developed would be distant shareholders and not local stakeholders."
The main issue remains the long-term survival of Fish Lake, which originally would have been drained for use as a tailings pond. Taseko said it can prevent contamination from groundwater seepage from a tailings pond now to be located several kilometres away.
Experts from Natural Resources Canada told the panel the company has used some incorrect assertions in its proposal, and John Stockner, a professor at the UBC Fisheries Centre who appeared on behalf of the Tsilhqot'in National Government, told the panel he doesn't believe the lake has been saved.
"I kind of feel like a town crier because what I have to tell you is after considerable thought ... (I am) of the firm opinion that within a decade, Fish Lake will die," he told the panel.
Estimates indicate 2.4 billion kilograms of copper and about 377,000 kilograms (13.3 million ounces) of gold are at the site 550 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. The company estimates the mine would generate 550 direct jobs and generate $340 million in gross domestic product annually.
But the mine was rejected by the federal environment minister following the previous assessment in 2010.
Internal federal documents obtained by The Canadian Press under Access to Information laws note 40 per cent of the estimated metal reserves in the deposit cannot be exploited without impacting the lake.
The company said the new plan limits the life of the mine to 20 years, from 33, because it preserves the lake and will reclaim the watershed once the mine has shutdown.
Submissions to the panel showed no small amount of support.
Mayors and council from the surrounding communities of Williams Lake, 100 Mile House and Quesnel have all told the panel they support the project, as well as the area's Liberal member of the provincial legislature.
The original mine proposal received approval from a provincial assessment panel, and the government has made no secret that it wants the revised project passed.
"Without an approval for Prosperity Mine, the future of the Cariboo-Chilcotin is bleak," MLA Donna Barnett said in a letter filed with panel.
She noted the devastation wreaked by the mountain pine beetle on forestry, the crux of the local economy.
"Lobbyists that oppose resource development are just that — lobbyists — who are opposed to everything," Barnett wrote.
News from © The Canadian Press , 2013