September 24, 2007

Joint panel advises against approval of proposed Kemess North mine in BC

A federal-provincial joint panel reviewing the Kemess North copper-gold mine project proposed for development in northern British Columbia has recommended that the project not be approved by the two governments' environment ministers.

In its report, presented to the ministers, Northgate Minerals (the proponent) and to First Nations in the region, the panel concluded that the mining development as proposed would not be in the public interest and deemed the project's economic and social benefits to be outweighed by the risks of significant adverse environmental, social and cultural effects. Some of these impacts, said the panel, may not emerge until many years after mining operations cease.

The Kemess North proposal calls for the development of a copper and gold deposit six kilometres north of Northgate's existing Kemess South mine, which is about 250 km northeast of Smithers, BC and 450 km northwest of Prince George. During the 11-year production lifespan of the project, ore milling capacity would increase from the current 55,000 tonnes per day (tpd) to 120,000 tpd.

The new mine would also generate nearly 400 million tonnes of tailings and an estimated 325 million tonnes of waste rock, all of this material with a high sulfide content and thus prone to metal leaching and acid rock drainage without proper management. Northgate, as the proponent, has proposed the creation of an impoundment area using Duncan (Amazay) Lake and made extensive provision for both short-term and long-term site reclamation and post-closure management and monitoring.

In its review, the joint panel considered water management issues to be the central environment-related concern, including potential significant adverse impacts on water quality and the creation of a long-term site management legacy. In particular, it said the use of Duncan (Amazay) Lake for disposal of mining waste raises several important issues, such as the loss of a natural lake and displacement of its fisheries (plus the resulting need for fish habitat compensation), impacts on Aboriginal traditional use and related interests; the need for lake restoration; and long-term site management, including the need to maintain acceptable water quality and water balance within the lake and to maintain the dams built to structure it as an impoundment area. These issues are considered critical in view of the short lifespan of the mine and the project's marginal economics, says the report.

The panel reviewed the proposal from five sustainability perspectives: environmental stewardship, economic costs and benefits, social and cultural costs and benefits, fair distribution of costs and benefits, and present versus future generations. The need for rigorous post-closure site management, extending over an indefinite period, emerges as a major environmental concern, and the panel expresses doubt about how much assurance can be provided that this level of management would remain effective over such a long period.

The report further notes that the two years of construction plus 11 years of active production are not likely to add a great deal to the economic benefits currently being generated by the existing mining operation. The economics of the proposal are rendered even shakier by the possibility of premature mine closure and the long-term, post-closure maintenance costs. Moreover, adds the report, some of the most significant costs (i.e. spiritual and traditional) are not fully quantifiable in dollar terms, making it difficult if not impossible to judge whether the total benefits would outweigh the total costs.

In the event the governments decide to approve the project, however, the panel's report includes more than 30 recommendations aimed at mitigating the adverse effects of the project. These recommendations address water management and water quality; fish and fish habitat, including compensation measures; land resources, including replacement of lost wetlands and management programs for woodland caribou and other species; accidents and malfunctions; reclamation and post-closure; and Aboriginal issues.

The full joint panel report may be viewed on the BC Environmental Assessment Office Web site, www.eao.gov.bc.ca. A summary of the report, along with further information on the project, is available on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency Web site, www.ceaa.gc.ca.

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