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Oh wait – we don’t need to destroy Fish Lake after all!

8 November, 2010

On November 2nd,  Jim Prentice, then the Minister of Environment, refused to issue an environmental assessment certificate to Taseko Mines Ltd. to allow the company to build its controversial Prosperity Mine.  The project would have destroyed Teztan Biny/Fish Lake, as well as a second smaller lake, and was strongly opposed by the  Tsilhqot’in National Government and the environmental community, including West Coast Environmental Law. 

But wait! Two days later, on November 4th, Taseko announced that it would return to the table with a new and “improved” Prosperity Mine: Prosperity II.  Brian Battison of Taseko told CBC Television (in a story aired on CBC News Vancouver at 6 last Friday):

[Our original proposal] was designed at at a time when copper prices were lower, gold prices were lower, we weren’t aware of the federal government’s specific interests … concerns around this outcome, their decision.

Leaving aside the fact that both the Tsilhqot’in and the federal government, through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and other ministries, had been telling Taseko for years that their plans for Fish Lake were a show-stopping concern, Taseko’s announcement is not a complete surprise.  Minister of State for Mining, Randy Hawes, had said that he was meeting with Taseko to discuss the possibility of a new proposal.  And business commentators, in discussing the almost 25% drop in Taseko’s stock value following Prentice’s announcement, had highlighted the fact that Prentice did not entirely shut the door to a modified mine plan.

The possibility of a Prosperity proposal   that could result in economic development for the north while protecting Teztan Biny/Fish Lake and other environmental values might seem like a win-win scenario … if it were for real.  But there is at least one good reason to believe that a new and environmentally-benign Prosperity Mine is wishful thinking: Taseko has repeatedly said that it cannot protect Fish Lake and build the mine.

What Taseko said

Prosperity.jpgDuring both the federal and provincial environmental assessments of the proposed Prosperity Mine Taseko repeatedly told both levels of government that it would need to destroy Teztan Biny/Fish Lake sooner or later if the mine were developed.  As Taseko itself wrote in submissions to the federal panel:

Throughout the more than 15 years that this project has been undergoing an environmental assessment, significant First Nations and public interest in preserving Fish Lake has been expressed. Notwithstanding the inherent difficulties of trying to preserve a lake in the midst/immediately adjacent to a plant site/ concentrator and open pit, Taseko has left no stone unturned in trying to find a way to preserve Fish Lake and develop the Project. …

It is not possible to preserve Fish Lake as a viable and functioning ecosystem while at the same time maximizing the full potential of the defined resource. From a mine planning perspective, in order to meet the objective of maximizing the full potential of the mineral resource at Prosperity, mine planners and decisions makers need to contemplate and prepare for the development of a pit that infringes on Fish Lake.

The Federal government panel, based on submissions from Taseko, actually did consider 2 other designs of the proposed mine, including Plans 1 and 2 which would not, in the short term, have seen the destruction of Fish Lake (although all three would have converted the smaller Little Fish Lake (Nabaŝ) into a tailings pond. 

Early in the assessment, Taseko determined that Mine Development Plans 1 and 2 were fatally flawed due to excessive economic risk and that Mine Development Plan 3 was the most appropriate option. … While the Multiple Accounts Analysis indicated that Mine Development Plan 1 would be preferred in terms of effects to aquatic and terrestrial values, it confirmed Taseko’s previous conclusion that Mine Development Plan 3 was the only technically and economically feasible option.

In addition Taseko asserted that Plans 1 and 2 used unproven and uneconomical technology to control waste from the mine. 

Given the potential for metal leaching and acid rock drainage, it was determined by Taseko that sub-aqueous storage of potentially acid-generating waste rock was the only viable option. Taseko indicated that other potentially acid-generating waste rock management method had not been proven at the appropriate scale and would be uneconomical.

While commodity prices could change the “uneconomical” verdict on these alternatives, have the technologies in question suddenly become proven, in Taseko’s view, over the time since its participation in the environmental assessment?

Based on the information provided by Taseko, the Federal panel found:

  • as a result of the close proximity of the ore body to Teztan Biny (Fish Lake), it would not be preserved as a functioning ecosystem under the preferred mine development plan;
  • if expansion of the open pit were to occur in the future to maximize the extraction of the resource, the open pit would encroach on and eliminate Teztan Biny (Fish Lake) even if attempts were made to preserve it;

Again, even if changing commodity prices have made the other options suddenly viable, the environmental risks of these other options may be considerable. Taseko itself asserted that Plans 1 and 2, while allowing for the protection of Fish Lake in the short term, had their own environmental risks.  According to BC’s environmental assessment report:

Further analysis weighed the risk, or likelihood of occurrences of potential failure modes and their consequences on human life, water quality, fisheries, wildlife, bio-physical effects and operations. In this analysis, [Taseko’s] Application concludes that option 3 offers the most environmental security.

Environment Canada, although concerned about the loss of Teztan Biny/Fish Lake, also expressed concern about the longer term environmental risks of the other mine designs (quoting from the federal panel report):

Environment Canada stated that while Mine Development Plan 3 would have the greatest immediate impact to the aquatic environment, it had a potentially lower long-term environmental risk than Mine Development Plans 1 and 2.

A pig with lipstick?

SO... what to make of this talk of other options or designs for Prosperity Mine?  Taseko has claimed that there were few possibilities other than destroying the lake, and the other options that do exist are not economically viable and may be even worse, environmentally. And they have said that even with other alternatives, eventually, they will need to come back and destroy Fish Lake.  Changes in the markets should not have had any effect on the environmental risks of the alternatives. 

And if there are still other alternatives, as yet unconsidered, that would avoid these environmental impacts, what does that say about the environmental assessment process, and it’s failure to see through Taseko’s claims that the destruction of Fish Lake was the only viable way of building this mine? In its long years planning this project and the shorter time spent going through environmental assessment, did Taseko leave environmentally superior but more costly options off of the table?

Do Canada’s environmental assessment laws allow companies to propose the cheapest, environmentally destructive options to develop their projects, and claim unequivocally that that other potentially viable alternatives are too costly to make a profit, in the hopes that the cheapest and most profitable option wins approval? If they are turned down, is it fair game for them to then turn around and announce that other more costly – but still profitable – options are all of a sudden viable?  Not only would this sort of practice threaten the integrity and credibility of environmental assessment, it is a recipe for poorer environmental outcomes as hidden (or insufficiently considered), environmentally superior alternatives may never come to light as companies place bets that more destructive options will get approval.

Gold prices have risen since Prosperity was proposed (although copper prices aren’t too different from 2007 when Taseko first started applying for permits for the mine).  And this may indeed have influenced the bottom line of some of the alternative designs.  But even if the economics have changed to that degree, Taseko and Environment Canada have both condemned these options as more environmentally destructive in the long term than destroying Fish Lake.  Taseko has suggested that in the long term Fish Lake would be destroyed anyway. 

While it’s nice to think that BC can have its environmental cake and eat it too, the fact remains that 15 years of detailed planning by Taseko was not able to uncover a win-win solution.  Claims of a new, environmentally benign Prosperity II must be viewed with a high level of scepticism.  Trying to put a green spin on the Prosperity mine may be – to borrow an expression - like trying to put lipstick on a pig. 

Andrewblogphoto.jpgjosh_blogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage and Josh Paterson, Staff Counsel

P.S. – If people, whether they be lawyers or politicians, feed you the line about the Prosperity decision meaning that we need a single harmonized environmental assessment process, please do remind them that the Prosperity mine was headed for a single, joint panel process, until Taseko demanded a separate provincial process and the province went along with that demand.