Sam Beebe Skeena River Flickr

Two decades and $30 million later, a B.C. mine proposal is officially dead

Pacific Booker Minerals is being told for the second time its proposed Morrison mine is a no-go for sensitive salmon habitat in northwest B.C. — leaving some wondering why the province’s environmental assessment process is so inefficient

They say that history repeats itself because nobody was listening the first time.

B.C. rejected a proposed open-pit copper, gold and molybdenum mine for the second time Monday, spelling the likely end of a saga that lasted nearly 20 years, cost tens of millions of dollars and exposed flaws in B.C.’s environmental assessment process along the way.

Plans for the Morrison mine, proposed for the shores of Morrison Lake, known as T’akh Tl’ah Bin, about 65 kilometres from Smithers on Lake Babine Nation territory, go back to the ‘90s — although miners have been eyeing the area for its gold and copper since as far back as the ‘60s.

But it wasn’t until 2003 when Pacific Booker Minerals officially entered into B.C.’s environmental assessment process that the gold, copper and molybdenum mine project, planned to produce 30,000 tonnes of ore per day over a 21-year period, really began to take shape.

And that’s also when it should have been stopped in its tracks, according to many who saw the project, right from its inception, as too dangerous to fish and water to proceed. 

Adrienne Berchtold, ecologist and mining impacts researcher with SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, said the proposed site for the mine should have excluded it from consideration at the outset. But, as Berchtold pointed out, B.C. has no clear guidelines on unsuitable locations for mines — guidelines that would have saved everyone involved in the Morrison mine saga years of time and energy.

“A lot of resources have gone into evaluating this project, not only on the part of the government, but the proponent and First Nations and other community groups have [also] put tons of work … into debating this project that really never should have been proposed in the first place because of the high value of that habitat for sockeye.”

The Morrison mine was first rejected by the province in 2012 on the grounds that the risks to fish, water and communities outweighed any potential economic benefits from the project. About 90 per cent of Skeena River sockeye populations come from the Skeena watershed, of which Morrison Lake is a part, depending on the year. 

It’s the same conclusion George Heyman, minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, and Bruce Ralston, minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, came to this week.

“Having reviewed the material provided to us, we have reached the same conclusion as our predecessors: there remain uncertainties and risks to fish and water quality,” the ministers wrote in their reasons for decision. “In light of that uncertainty, we do not think it would be in the public interest to grant an [environmental assessment certificate] for the Morrison mine.”

Yet for many involved in the process, it’s frustrating such uncertainty could trail through a time and cost-intensive process that has dragged on for nearly two full decades.

Vancouver-based Pacific Booker Minerals did not respond to The Narwhal’s request for an interview by time of publication. But in a February 2021 interview with Business in Vancouver, CEO John Plourde said the environmental assessment process, run through B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office, left his company in frustrating procedural limbo.

“They want us to tell them what we’re going to do. They’re supposed to tell us what we’re going to do,” he said in that interview.

Others say the process should never have dragged on for as long as it did given the insistent opposition to the project by the Lake Babine Nation. 

From day one the nation flagged concerns with the proposed mine given its proximity to salmon spawning grounds and nursery habitat. 

“It was a fundamentally flawed project,” Verna Power, councillor with Lake Babine Nation, said in a statement after the mine’s rejection on Monday.

“We cannot support any project that threatens our yintah (territory and natural resources) and our future as a people, so it is a huge relief that this project is finally dead.”

The saga of the Morrison mines B.C. environmental assessment process

Power, who has experience working in mines, noted the Lake Babine Nation is not anti-mining in principle, but the risk the project posed to imperilled sockeye populations and other cultural and ecological values was too great.

“[Morrison mine] threatened our talok (sockeye salmon), the most precious resource in our territory. Talok define us as Lake Babine people,” she said.

The Skeena River is Canada’s second-largest salmon-producing watershed and in recent decades all wild salmon populations in the Skeena have declined, some by as much as 90 per cent.

The high risks to salmon were flagged by the province during the first 2012 assessment of the Morrison mine, with the ministers noting at the time that the project held “the potential to impact a genetically unique sockeye salmon population that contributes to the Skeena River sockeye.” The ministers also pointed out there wasn’t enough knowledge about the “behaviour” of Morrison Lake to adequately protect the quality of the water. 

underwater view of school of smolts
Lake Babine is an important nursery habitat for declining Skeena River sockeye salmon. Photo: NOAA Fisheries West Coast / Flickr

When the province first reviewed the project leading up to the 2012 decision, B.C.’s environmental assessment office found the company planned to use Morrison Lake to dilute effluent from the mine “in perpetuity.” The province also found the original design of the waste storage inadequate and the company later committed to lining the tailings pond with a geomembrane to prevent seepage of contaminated material.

Despite this, the office concluded the mine “would not result in any significant adverse effects with the successful implementation of mitigation measures and conditions.” 

Yet Derek Sturko, the then-director of the assessment office, recommended B.C.’s ministers reject the project.

Based on these findings, B.C.’s then-Environment Minister Terry Lake and then-Energy, Mines and Natural Gas Minister Rich Coleman rejected the project. (The B.C. environmental assessment office makes a recommendation for or against a project but the final decision rests with these two ministers).

In response, Pacific Booker Minerals took B.C. to court, arguing the province had treated the company unfairly. 

In an affidavit filed with the B.C. Supreme Court at the time, Sturko said the company wasn’t meeting provincial requirements in a timely manner. He also said he felt the company was committing to “whatever expensive and complicated late-stage mitigation measures it perceived might attain it a ‘clean’ environmental assessment.” 

The company took exception with Sturko’s reasons for his recommendation the province reject the project, alleging they directly contradicted the results of the assessment, and said it should have been given a chance to respond. In its 2013 petition for judicial review, Pacific Booker Minerals noted the company had spent around $30 million on the project, including $10 million on the environmental assessment process alone.  

A B.C. Supreme Court judge agreed with the company in 2013, overturning the province’s rejection of the Morrison mine. The judge noted the environmental assessment office director was entitled to make recommendations beyond the scope of the assessment but agreed with the company that it should have been provided a copy of the environmental assessment office’s recommendations to the ministers and given a chance to respond.

When the courts overturned the decision, the province gave the proponent an opportunity to revise its plans, asking Pacific Booker to provide additional information.

It was an opportunity for all parties to make up for missteps in the environmental assessment process, said Richard Overstall, lawyer and former representative of Babine River Foundation, a non-profit environmental group that expressed concerns with the project as a participant in the assessment process.

After the 2013 court ruling, “the government — the [environmental assessment office] and the ministers — had to go back and do things properly, which they did,” Overstall told The Narwhal. 

The province “gave the company several opportunities to revamp their application, essentially do more work, which was the main reason why it was rejected in the first place.”

Overstall said the process was marred by a lack of reliable information provided by the company, noting a dispute between Pacific Booker Minerals and Rescan, an environmental consultancy the company contracted to conduct studies as part of the provincial assessment. In 2010, Rescan filed a civil claim against Pacific Booker after the mining company allegedly failed to settle nearly $200,000 in unpaid invoices. In the claim, Rescan also alleged the mining company altered its technical reports to “minimize third-party professional statements of the project effects [on] the environment.” 

The claim was settled out of court so the allegations were never proven.

The project then entered into an odd state of limbo, where the company’s application was reconsidered and the province had the opportunity to request more information. During this period, the company submitted three supplementary studies as requested by the province — each was deemed insufficient by the assessment office.

The inability of Pacific Booker to satisfy the province’s requests led to the company generating an unsuspecting ally, former Green Party leader and MLA Andrew Weaver, who argued in 2020 that the province’s handling of the Morrison mine application was plagued with “regulatory inconsistencies.”

Weaver raised questions about the strung-out assessment process, declaring in the B.C. legislature during question period that “despite numerous exchanges with the environmental assessment office and the completion of an in-depth study of Morrison Lake, Pacific Booker has been unable to clarify the precise nature of what is actually required… For Pacific Booker, this order [that the project undergo further assessment] has been tantamount to a rejection of its project without the ministry formally saying no.”

Overstall said the Morrison mine conflict is indicative of even deeper flaws in B.C.’s environmental assessment process, which is essentially an opportunity for government ministers to convince the public the province is protecting the environment, when in fact there is little accountability or transparency built into the process. 

Overstall pointed to the assessment reports, which are referred to ministers for decisions on major projects like the Morrison mine, are in fact a composite work of multiple authors, often a mishmash of bureaucrats who are unnamed, meaning no individual can be held accountable for what these reports contain.

Ultimately the decision as to whether a large project should go ahead really rests with politicians who exercise complete discretion. And the environmental assessment process is “essentially greenwashing a political decision,” Overstall said. 

The Morrison mine project remained in its state of limbo until Dec. 2, 2021, when B.C.’s environmental assessment office once again referred the project to the ministers for a final decision, which resulted in Monday’s rejection.

‘Good data and good sound science prevailed’ in Morrison mine’s rejection, says chief

Lake Babine Nation is all too familiar with the impacts of mining on its territory. Two shuttered mines on Babine Lake have been polluting the watershed for decades and the threat to struggling salmon populations is a concern for First Nations throughout the watershed.

“Our wild salmon populations are in the red zone … and [salmon are] the backbone of our culture,” Donna MacIntyre, Lake Babine Nation fisheries manager, previously told The Narwhal.

In its first recommendation B.C.’s ministers, the environmental assessment office flagged “the strength of claim of the Lake Babine Nation, in particular their moderate to strong prima facie case for Aboriginal Title” as reasons that factored into its counsel not to proceed with the project.

Early last year, Bill Bennett, former minister of mines under the BC Liberals, told Business in Vancouver Lake Babine Nation’s opposition to the mine played a role in the government’s original rejection of the project.

“It’s true that the local First Nation was not interested in having a mine built so close to the lake,” he said. “You hear that all the time — ‘It’s one of B.C.’s most important salmon lakes.’ Well, this one really is.”

Babine Lake, Na-taw-bun-kut, is the longest natural lake in the province and provides important nursery habitat for 30 populations of sockeye salmon. Morrison Lake also provides nursery habitat and spawning grounds, according to multiple studies conducted during the proposed mine’s environmental assessment. Those spawning grounds would be directly impacted by the mine, which would have been built along prime shore habitat.

“One of the biggest concerns with the projects that I’m aware of is that there are documented … groundwater upwelling areas on the shores close to where the mine would have been,” Berchtold, with SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, said. She explained those areas are where groundwater enters the lake, which “provides the stability of the temperatures in slightly warmer temperatures” that salmon eggs need to hatch.

Berchtold stressed the importance of preserving Morrison Lake’s salmon populations. Unique populations within a watershed helps the species as a whole adapt to changes in the environment. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology noted a decline of 70 per cent in sockeye population diversity in the Skeena River watershed.   

“We need that genetic diversity,” she said. “We need that resilience across populations in terms of climate adaptation and all sorts of other other reasons.”

Downstream, Gitxsan and Gitanyow Nations shared Lake Babine Nation’s celebration of the fresh rejection of the mine.  

“I think it was a good decision,” Simogyet (Chief) Malii Glen Williams, president of the Gitanyow hereditary chiefs, told The Narwhal. “There was too much risk associated with the planning of the mine and in light of the continued uncertainty of stocks in the Skeena. Some good data and good sound science prevailed here.”

Stu Barnes, chair of Skeena Fisheries Commission, said in a statement that the location of the mine made it dangerous to salmon from the start. 

“The location of this proposed mine has extremely high ecosystem values for sockeye salmon that migrate into the Skeena River,” he said. 

“We have maintained a razor sharp focus on this ill-conceived mine for over a decade to speak for the salmon that our communities rely upon for food and cultural survival.”

B.C. charts new path forward for environmental assessment process that involves Indigenous communities

While Lake Babine Nation is breathing a sigh of relief over the decision to reject the mine, it is also charting a path forward to prevent this from happening again. The nation recently signed a groundbreaking agreement with the province which will enable the nation and B.C. to collaborate on future environmental assessments. 

The agreement is the first made under the recently revised B.C. environmental assessment act.

“This is an important and significant step on our reconciliation journey with the people of Lake Babine Nation,” Minister Heyman said in a November press release

“The first of its kind under this recent legislation, this agreement establishes a key shared decision-making precedent between the province and Lake Babine Nation moving forward, and ensures that Indigenous knowledge and values will be applied in full collaboration with the Nation.”

While Lake Babine Nation’s agreement helps ensure it has a leadership role in assessments moving forward, very few projects have undergone assessment under the revised legislation, which came into effect at the end of 2019. Critics of the province’s amended assessment legislation say B.C. missed the mark on making sure technical studies related to a project’s potential impacts on the environment are conducted by independent scientists, as opposed to consultants hired by proponents. Those critics, many of whom are scientists themselves, also noted the assessment process needs to be more transparent.

Critics of B.C.’s environmental assessment process have also pointed out that the process is predominantly used to approve projects and rarely to reject them. The arrival of COVID-19 delayed the province’s work to introduce regional environmental assessments that would look at the cumulative impacts of all past, present and future projects on the landscape and also potentially identify no-go zones for major resource projects. 

When asked how many projects have been rejected under B.C.’s environmental assessment legislation, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy did not respond directly to the question, instead noting many projects are changed or withdrawn before making it to the finish line. It remains to be seen what impact the revised legislation will have on projects moving forward.  

“If issues or adverse impacts are not adequately addressed by a proponent, an [environmental assessment certificate] may not be issued, such as with the Ajax mine project in 2017, the Kemess North mine project in 2008 and the Ashcroft Landfill project in 2011,” the ministry wrote in an email to The Narwhal. 

“Many projects also do not reach the final decision stage and are either terminated or withdrawn by the proponent prior to reaching … decision, or are changed substantially over the course of the [assessment].”

Lake Babine Nation Chief Murphy Abraham noted the significance of the agreement in his comments on the rejection of Morrison mine.

“Thanks to our new [environmental assessment] collaboration agreement with B.C., Lake Babine will be deeply involved in reviewing proposed mines in our territory from now on,” he said in a press release. 

“Proponents who want to build a mine in our territory need to get to know our people, our values and our expectations. They need to work with us respectfully and develop projects that are sustainable for our yintah, our rights and our way of life.”

Threats to our environment are often hidden from public view.
So we’ve embarked on a little experiment at The Narwhal: letting our investigative journalists loose to file as many freedom of information requests as their hearts desire.

They’ve filed more than 300 requests this year — and unearthed a veritable mountain of government documents to share with readers across Canada.

But the reality is this kind of digging takes lots of time and no small amount of money.

As many newsrooms cut staff, The Narwhal has doubled down on hiring reporters to do hard-hitting journalism — and we do it all as an independent, non-profit news organization that doesn’t run any advertising.

Will you join the growing chorus of readers who have stepped up to hold the powerful accountable?
Threats to our environment are often hidden from public view.
So we’ve embarked on a little experiment at The Narwhal: letting our investigative journalists loose to file as many freedom of information requests as their hearts desire.

They’ve filed more than 300 requests this year — and unearthed a veritable mountain of government documents to share with readers across Canada.

But the reality is this kind of digging takes lots of time and no small amount of money.

As many newsrooms cut staff, The Narwhal has doubled down on hiring reporters to do hard-hitting journalism — and we do it all as an independent, non-profit news organization that doesn’t run any advertising.

Will you join the growing chorus of readers who have stepped up to hold the powerful accountable?

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