The news release is bland enough: “Northgate Minerals Corporation reports that Ministers of the Environment for Canada and British Columbia have amended the schedule for the completion of the Joint Panel Review for the Kemess North Project…..to permit time for the federal and provincial governments to resolve outstanding issues relate to First Nations participation in the review process.”

Thanks to the internet we can access original documents that may shed a faint light on this announcement. The University of Northern British Columbia in October 2006 summarized the issues thus:

“Peter MacPhail of Northgate Explorations says the Kemess mine will shut down in 2009 if they are unable to receive a go ahead for the development of Kemess North. Speaking to the opening session of the Kemess North Copper-Gold Project environment review today in Prince George, the company said the new mine will operate until the year 2022, but can only operate profitably if they are allowed to put their tailings into Duncan (Amazay) Lake.

The company proposes three dams to store tailings from the new mine. The Panel hearing the matter is comprised of Carol Jones, Chairperson, along with Dr. Malcolm Scoble of UBC, and Mark Duiver. Chief John French of the Takla Band …. called on the Board to consider that no funding agreement is in place with the First Nations, nor has any separate consultation taken place. Northgate he said is not looking at any options for the project other than to destroy Duncan Lake. "I welcome you" he said "but I am not happy with what you bring." "Everything that we take from Mother Nature we put back." saidChief French., "In ten years the mine will be gone and then the jobs will be gone along with Duncan Lake."Chief French says there be no net gain "That is when the Governmentwill be called upon to fix the problems of the lake and they will need to spend all the money that they received from the project. These hearings should be suspended until the land claims issue has been settled."

Northgate says that of the 475 people that work there, 51 are First Nations, 30 from the immediate area. Anadditional 19 First Nations' peoplework for contractors doing work at the mine. Northgate says the company at present has a payroll of 27 million and there are 125 jobs from contractors working at the site and the spin off from the mine accounts for a further 950 jobs.”

In November 2006, the First Nation Summit Task Group made a submission to the Kemess North Joint Review Board. I summarize from the Executive Summary:

“This fundamentally flawed review process is a collaboration between the federal and provincial governments and the mining proponents to (1) completely destroy Amazay Lake (also known as Duncan Lake) as a viable freshwater ecosystem by turning it into a mine waste disposal site; (2) solely for the sake of economic convenience, provide rationale to the mining proponent and its shareholders for their preferred option for mine waste management (and the only alternative presented); and (3) run roughshod over the First Nations peoples’ constitutionally recognized and affirmed Aboriginal title rights to Amazay Lake and the surrounding area, including downstream.

On the Northgate Minerals Corporation site is this comparison of an alternative tailings disposal scheme, called the Multi-storage sites option:

  • “Lowest environmental risk: The environmental risk of losing Duncan Lake is offset by the cumulative risks associated with the five facilities required for the Multi-Storage sites. The long-term closure risks of Duncan Lake are significantly less than those of the Multi-Storage sites.
  • Environmental impact: The loss of Duncan Lake is a “Major” aquatic habitat loss and a sound program of compensation and mitigation is required. The Multi-Storage sites have a higher terrestrial habitat impact associated with the larger areas of disturbance with the five sites. The Multi-Storage sites also pose a significant challenge to ensure the long-term containment of the mine waste within technically challenging impoundment structures.
  • Lowest cost: The estimated cost of the Duncan Lake facility is in the order of $200 million versus an estimated cost of $1 billion for the Multi-Storage sites. The Multi-Storage sites option is cost prohibitive.
  • Flexibility: The Duncan Lake facility can be expanded to contain future waste, without the requirement for new tailings and waste rock storage sites.”

I presume that using Amazay/Duncan Lake also involves constructing a major embankment, for Northgate states “Potentially acid generating waste rock and tailings would be deposited in a flooded impoundment that would ultimately fill in the Duncan Lake valley and raise the current lake elevation from 1300 m to an elevation of 1390 m.”

We will watch with interest this ongoing review. It certainly captures in one project these significant issues that face society and the mining industry in 2007:

  • Employment and mining development.
  • First Nation rights.
  • Acid Rock Disposal Options and Alternatives.
  • Risk analysis and the ability of technology to foretell the future.
And then there is the fascinating sight of a body of three ordinary people sitting in judgment on a project, a province, a nation, a country, and an industry. Being more familiar with the USA system, I am intrigued and terrified at this distinctly old fashioned way of resolving a dispute—shunting it to a body of so-called experts. What is wrong with a NEPA type review, full disclosure, public examination of the issues, and a good old fight in the courts? At least we know the rules by which the public, juries, and judges decide.