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Opinion

BC's Own Fake Lake Scandal

'Prosperity' mine builder wants to kill an entire trout-rich lake and build a new artificial one with no guarantees.

By Tony Pearse 30 Jun 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Tony Pearse is a resource planner specializing in land use and resource management issues involving First Nation communities and territories in western Canada. He assisted the Tsihlqot'in National Government at the technical hearings of the federal panel review of the Prosperity mine.

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Teztan Biny or Fish Lake: Slated for tailings dump.

Within days, likely, the federal review panel conducting the environmental assessment of the Taseko Mines 'Prosperity' gold-copper mine will issue its final report to the minister of environment.

On the basis of the evidence submitted to it, the law requires the panel to recommend that the minister reject the project.

The reason is simple. The company was unable to provide any evidence that its project -- a 70,000 tonne per day open pit copper-gold mine in the Chilcotin -- would make a positive contribution to sustainability.

And no, Taseko's offer to build an artificial new lake to replace the one it proposes to fill with mine waste doesn't begin to meet the sustainability test.

Here's why.

Death sentence for a lake

Taseko's mine plan came to light in April this year when the review panel held community and technical hearings on the Prosperity project in Williams Lake and surrounding communities.

According to Taseko's updated mine plan presented to the panel, the 33-year mine will generate some 858 million tonnes of potentially acid-generating waste rock that will have to be kept flooded in perpetuity behind a 100 metre plus high dam, high in the uplands of the Taseko River watershed, an important part of the valuable Chilko salmon runs in the Fraser River system.

The need to maintain this dam forever poses a tremendous risk to Fraser River salmon, and an unsustainable legacy for future generations who make their living off the Fraser salmon resource.

The company and the B.C. government, which handed Taseko a provincial environmental approval in January 2010, argue that while perpetual maintenance of flooded acid generating rock may be a significant environmental risk, failure of the dam is not a certainty -- such risks can be managed, they say.

It is interesting to note, however, that the 2007 joint review panel investigating the proposed Kemess North mine recommended rejection of that project precisely on the basis of such risk being imposed on future generations, particularly since that panel had little faith that future provincial governments would step up to the plate to ensure that post-closure maintenance of the dams would be properly carried out.

For Prosperity, while the acid-generating waste rock is a serious sustainability challenge, the real fatal flaw in the company's plans is the completely inadequate fish habitat compensation plan for the destruction of Teztan Biny, or Fish Lake, a 111 hectare, fabulously productive rainbow trout ecosystem that will be filled with mine wastes. Here there is no uncertainty. Proof of technical and economically viable plans to replace the ecological values lost is simply not in front of the panel. Teztan Biny will be a complete write-off.

Risk and hubris

The mining company intends to fill Teztan Biny with waste rock from the mine, and to construct an artificial lake to compensate for its loss. This new waterbody, which Taseko ironically calls Prosperity Lake, is significantly smaller than Teztan Biny and is to be built on the upstream side of the tailings impoundment.

In addition to the new lake, the compensation project includes engineered spawning channels at the inlet, and a (hopefully) self-regulating freshwater collection system to be built across the headwater slopes to collect and divert surface runoff into the spawning channels and the new lake. These components must function in an ecologically integrated fashion in perpetuity in order to preserve the rainbow trout population.

To get the plans right, and to construct this system so that all the pieces will work together, forever, as a self-maintaining aquatic ecosystem is the big challenge faced by the company. The evidence before the panel is that such technology is beyond the pale of applied science.

A feasible habitat compensation plan is also a legal requirement of the Fisheries Act, and DFO presented a critical analysis to the panel showing that Taseko's plan to replace Fish Lake was far from acceptable in this regard.

Dr. Gordon Hartman, the eminence grise of freshwater fish biology in B.C. and a former consultant to DFO on the Prosperity project, went even further. Testifying before the panel on behalf of the Tsihlqot'in National Government, he characterized Taseko's plan as merely a "concoction of ideas," and accused the company of hubris in proposing such a grandiose and patently unworkable scheme.

DFO up to the job?

Other evidence submitted to the panel showed unequivocally that even for the individual components of the plan, such as trout spawning channels, the track record for success in the short-term is very poor, and for the longer-term simply not demonstrated. MiningWatch Canada's submission reviewed a number of audits of DFO's previously authorized fish habitat compensation projects and clearly shows a poor record of performance by proponents in achieving and maintaining the compensation objectives.

Even DFO's track record came under attack at the panel. The Commissioner of Sustainable Development's scathing audit last year, submitted to the panel by MiningWatch, showed that DFO's system of tracking habitat compensation projects carried out by proponents is essentially dysfunctional, and the department cannot reliably determine whether such projects are successful or not.

MiningWatch also presented the federal government's spending estimates for the next three years, which showed an approximate 30 per cent decrease in operating funds for DFO's Habitat Management Branch.

Prosperity's fatal flaw

The result of all this is that the panel is left with no evidence that demonstrates that Taseko's compensation plan for the lake is either technically or economically viable. Not only do the individual parts of the plan have dubious track records of success, but nowhere is there any evidence that a complete reconstruction of a multi-component aquatic ecosystem of any size, let alone the 93 square kilometre Teztan Biny watershed, has been attempted.

Even after 17 years of developing its plans, and knowing all along that DFO would require a robust, demonstrably viable habitat compensation plan to address the loss of Fish Lake, the company provided no convincing evidence to the panel that the plans would work.

So the panel is left with the fact that what the company plans to offer in compensation for the loss of Teztan Biny is unproven technology, and this is Prosperity's fatal flaw.

Unproven technology proved to be the fatal flaw for a proposed copper acid heap leach mine when, just over a month ago, the Yukon Water Board rejected an application for an operating water license by Western Copper, the mine's proponent.

Besides, even if Taseko did eventually manage to cobble together a feasible compensation project, it would be far from sustainable. As the company told the panel, it is committed to maintaining the compensation works only as long as mining continues at Prosperity, at which point its responsibility to keep the compensation project functioning would end. Hardly a recipe for sustainability.  [Tyee]

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