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Feds cutting corners on environmental assessments: Supreme Court

The federal government has been undermining its own environmental review process, according to a Supreme Court of Canada decision released Thursday that’s expected to affect future environmental assessments on resource development projects across the country.

The court ruled that the Canadian government acted unlawfully when it chose to only assess certain aspects of Imperial Metal’s Red Chris mine project in northern B.C.. The piecemeal approach to the project’s assessment, which excluded the actual mine site, allowed the company to avoid a community consultation, said Ecojustice staff lawyer Lara Tessaro, who represented advocacy group MiningWatch on the case.

“I think MiningWatch and Ecojustice have had a complete victory on the law,” she said. “This was intended to resolve a broadly legal federal practice that has been longstanding for a decade across the country. It happened to focus on the Red Chris mine, but going forward this decision is going to apply to every major industrial project in Canada. With that result, we are thrilled.”

The proposed open pit mine lies within the Tahltan First Nation’s traditional territory and in the area known as the Sacred Headwaters, birthplace of three of B.C.’s top salmon-producing rivers. The mine is proposed for Todagin Mountain, which is critical lambing habitat for the rare stone sheep.

The project would turn nearby Black Lake into a toxic dump and could impact water quality on the Klappan and Iskut rivers, Tessaro said.

Despite the decision, Imperial Metals will not have to undergo a new environmental review. However, Tessaro noted that the proposed mine still needs approval for the “most controversial” federal permit, which would grant approval to convert a Black Lake into a tailings pond.

“Environmental groups and mining watchdogs will be vigorously asserting that this project should not be allowed to take Black Lake for its tailings,” she said. “There is also the suggestion out there that somehow the court decision gives Imperial Metals a green light, or the right, to proceed—it doesn’t.”

The Supreme Court’s decision states that, “the responsible authorities erred in failing to use the project as proposed by Red Chris Development Company Ltd. to determine . . . if a federal environmental assessment was to be conducted, whether it was to proceed by way of comprehensive study if the project was listed in the Comprehensive Study List Regulations and if not, by way of screening.”

The ruling guarantees future public consultation on other large-scale development projects, such as tar sands developments, according to Ecojustice.

Imperial Metals noted in a news release that the ruling does not affect the project’s progress, adding that the process avoided “unnecessary and costly duplication” between federal and provincial environmental review processes. The environmental review’s outcome was never challenged in court.

In a news release issued Thursday, Sierra Club Canada called the federal government’s decision to allow the mine to proceed despite its acknowledgment that it had violated the environmental review process “disturbing.” The environmental lobby groups called for Imperial Metals to resubmit its proposal to the CEAA, requesting a full panel review.

Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson added that increased resources to the federal environmental review process would help increase efficiency.

“I think that the Supreme Court’s spoken, it’s made it pretty clear that you can’t cut corners when it comes to the federal environmental assessment process and how it applies mining projects such as Red Chris,” he said. “I also think that if we want to streamline the federal environmental review process, we need more resources at the federal environmental assessment level so that the work can get done in a timely manner.”

Amanda Follett reports for the Tyee from Smithers.

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