Southern mountain caribou in B.C. are increasingly rare. Rarer still is a mine project rejected under the province’s environmental assessment process.
Yet, that’s just what happened to the Sukunka coal mine proposed by Swiss mining giant Glencore in the Peace River region of northeast B.C. The mine — which would have operated over a lifespan of 20 years and generated 1.5 to 2.5 million tonnes of metallurgical coal each year from six open pits — was soundly rejected in December, primarily due to its impacts on the endangered Quintette caribou herd.
The rejection has some observers wondering if the decision signals the province will give more consideration to how resource development decisions impact at-risk species.
In a six-page document outlining reasons for the decision, B.C. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman and Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation Josie Osborne wrote “we are of the view that the potential adverse effects of Sukunka outweigh the potential benefits.”
“As proposed this project currently threatens the existence of the already-precarious Quintette herd and would be contrary to the goal of sustainable development in the area,” the ministers wrote.
It’s almost unheard of in B.C. to reject a project for its negative impacts on at-risk caribou. A 2020 study published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice found that of 65 environmental assessments for projects found to have potentially significant adverse impacts on caribou, only one was rejected.
The Sukunka coal mine would have entailed the construction of waste-rock stockpiles, roads, transmission lines, water treatment facilities and a camp for 250 workers to produce metallurgical coal used in steelmaking.
Had it moved forward, the project also would have infringed First Nations rights and destroyed more than 2,700 hectares of land within the territory of Treaty 8 First Nations, including West Moberly First Nations, Saulteau First Nations and McLeod Lake Indian Band.
While McLeod Lake Chief Harley Chingee wrote a brief letter of support for the Sukunka project in December, West Moberly and Saulteau First Nations urged the provincial and federal governments to reject the mine.
In a September letter to provincial and federal ministers Saulteau First Nations Chief and Council wrote “we have already endured many, many poorly planned and highly impactful decisions based on flawed policy rationales.”
“In the autumn of 2012, provincial ministers ignored the expert warnings and made a decision that pushed the fragile and endangered Quintette caribou herd to the edge of extinction,” the chief and councillors wrote, referring to a decision to approve a coal mine expansion in the region.
“Now exactly ten years later, you are faced with the same question; do we listen to the experts, or not? This time we urge you to listen to the experts and heed their warnings.”
In a separate letter to B.C. government ministers, West Moberly First Nations Chief Roland Willson said the project “will seriously infringe upon everything that is salient to the West Moberly way of life.”
Alongside the added risks to caribou, West Moberly members’ access to moose and other ungulates would also be impacted.
“Food and food practices, including hunting and trapping are an essential part of West Moberly culture, tradition and values,” Willson wrote. “The Sukunka project, if constructed, will only amplify current problems caused by industrial development and ultimately will infringe on West Moberly’s ability to exercise its right to hunt as enshrined in Treaty 8.”
Willson also pointed to the threat the mine posed to the Sukunka River, “viewed by West Moberly as one of the last remaining safe areas to fish.”
Neither Willson nor Saulteau Chief Justin Napoleon could be reached for comment before publication.
The region has already been heavily impacted by natural gas extraction, forestry and mining, which have contributed to the decline of caribou, grizzly bears and other wildlife. The Sukunka mine would have added to this already heavy industrial burden, putting grizzlies, wetlands and fish at further risk.
The joint decision by the B.C. and federal governments to reject the mine came two days after Canada and 195 other countries reached a new agreement to conserve and restore nature in a bid to halt the global biodiversity crisis and prevent more plant and animal species from disappearing.
“It was a good decision,” Scott McNay, an ecologist and project manager with the consulting company Wildlife Infometric said of the decision to reject the mine.
Southern mountain caribou have been listed as threatened since 2003 under the federal Species at Risk Act. B.C. has lost eight herds since 2005, while more teeter on the verge of local extinction.
In 2014, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada recommended the Quintette herd and other southern mountain caribou herds be listed as endangered under the federal Species at Risk Act.
In 2022, the Quintette herd numbered around 110 animals, an increase from 62 animals in 2016, according to a report McNay and his colleagues submitted for consideration in the Sukunka environmental assessment. McNay was engaged as a subject matter expert by the First Nations Independent Technical Review committee as part of its review of the project.
In an interview, McNay questioned whether the increase is potentially overstated due to a change in the way herd size is assessed, also noting the Quintette herd is stable, if not increasing.
That’s primarily due to an ongoing effort to control wolf numbers. About 200 wolves were killed in the herd’s range between 2015 and 2020, according to a study published last March by McNay and co-authors. Some habitat restoration work has been undertaken but it will be some time before it has any effect on population levels, McNay said.
He said the Sukunka mine would have been “devastating” for the herd had it been approved.
McNay blamed an “unprecedented” level of disturbance in the herd’s range for the herd’s decline. In 2008, the herd had as many as 218 animals. A significant portion of the remaining herd uses the area where the Sukunka mine would have been built, McNay said. Had the mine moved forward, the caribou “would have been at greater risk and probably died,” he said.
“So, it was definitely the right decision to make,” McNay said of the decision to deny the environmental assessment certificate. But he warned, “it doesn’t help fix the bad decisions of the past.”
While recovery for the herd remains challenging, the decision means there’s still light at the end of the tunnel for the Quintette caribou, he said. Had the mine’s environmental assessment been approved, “that light would have been extinguished.”
Extensive road networks and resource development in the region have had an impact on grizzly bears as well. “There is currently not enough habitat for grizzly bears to maintain their current population density in the region,” according to a summary of the environmental assessment report.
While B.C. is one of the most biodiverse provinces in the country, it lacks stand-alone species at risk legislation. Instead, the province relies on a piecemeal approach that’s seen logging, mining, and oil and gas extraction repeatedly allowed in habitat critical for caribou and other at-risk species.
But a ground-breaking court ruling in June 2021, known as the Yahey decision, set the stage for major change. The court found the province “unjustifiably infringed” Blueberry River First Nations’ rights under Treaty 8 “in permitting the cumulative impacts of industrial development to meaningfully diminish Blueberry’s exercise of its Treaty Rights.”
“It was clear in the Yahey decision that the province hasn’t adequately addressed cumulative effects in the northeast,” Nikki Skuce, director of the Northern Confluence Initiative and co-Chair of the BC Mining Law Reform Network, said.
The Sukunka mine “would have added even more [impacts] and likely extirpated the caribou herd given further loss of habitat. This region should be made a no-go zone for further mining expansion and development,” she said in an email to The Narwhal.
Maegen Giltrow, a partner with Ratcliff LLP and the lead lawyer for Blueberry River in the Yahey case, told The Narwhal “it is a real paradigm shift to take cumulative effects into account in the way they did and to actually say no to a project.”
“Compare it to the evidence that we had before the court in trial in Yahey, where in similar sorts of situations before the [Environmental Assessment Office] proponents were able to say, ‘well, things are already so disturbed in the area, this will just add another one per cent, so ergo, the cumulative effects aren’t that bad and you can let us go,’ which is death in 100 cuts,” she said.
The Sukunka rejection was a marked departure from that pattern and it’s clear the Yahey decision played a significant role, she said.
“It sets a precedent and so I hope that that precedent is strong enough to carry over into other resource decisions,” McNay said.
The decision was welcomed by Jessica Dempsey and Rosemary Collard, two geography professors who authored the 2020 environmental assessment study that found caribou habitat is almost always sacrificed for industrial projects. Dempsey, from the University of British Columbia, and Collard, from Simon Fraser University, warned the Sukunka rejection represents “the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to caribou in B.C.”
In a joint statement to The Narwhal, the duo noted the decision came out of a specific set of circumstances, including the Yahey decision and potential for an emergency order under the federal Species at Risk Act to protect at-risk caribou.
“Our take is this decision does not represent a change in direction for caribou on its own,” they said.
“How would we know if a change is truly underway? When the government makes concrete plans to transition the province from extractivism — this means making policy choices that significantly shift the drivers of caribou decline including reducing mining, oil and gas, and forestry cut rates, and redirecting subsidies that drive biodiversity loss and [greenhouse gas] emissions towards restoration and the building of reparative economies,” Dempsey and Collard said.
A spokesperson for the B.C. environment ministry said in a statement to The Narwhal the “government is committed to strong protections for the environment while maintaining B.C.’s reputation as an attractive, leading jurisdiction for investment and innovation.”
The statement veered away from any suggestion that the Sukunka decision indicated a shift in approach more broadly.
“Every project is assessed on the specific aspects of that particular project. In this case, the potential negative impacts could not be sufficiently reduced,” it said.
“This decision is about one project. B.C.’s mining and mineral exploration sector is a strong and vital part of our economy, providing more than 30,000 jobs in communities throughout the province.”
According to the statement, there are no provisions for Glencore to appeal the decision although the company could submit a revised proposal for the project.
The B.C. government signaled a new commitment to conservation last month, when Premier David Eby directed Water, Land and Resource Stewardship Minister Nathan Cullen to protect 30 per cent of the province by 2030, in keeping with national and international targets to halt extinctions and reverse biodiversity loss.
At the same time, B.C. is moving forward with plans to develop a strategy to expand mining for critical minerals needed for a transition to a low carbon economy.
Skuce said she doesn’t view the decision to reject Sukunka as a shift from those plans. Coal isn’t one of those minerals considered critical, she noted.
“However I do hope that it is a shift for the [Environment Assessment Office] and decision-makers to take into account cumulative effects more seriously and the inability, in some places, to mitigate impacts,” she said in an email to The Narwhal.
Updated Jan. 10, 2023, at 2:25 p.m. PT: This article was updated to include comment from the B.C. government, Jessica Dempsey and Rosemary Collard.
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