Fish Lake. Southern Chilcotins B.C.

Tsilhqot’in back in court in fight over Fish Lake as Taseko Mines readies for exploration

Open-pit mine twice rejected by federal government, but B.C. Supreme Court rules exploration work can continue

The Tsilhqot’in Nation is back in court this week in another effort to stop Taseko Mines Ltc. from drilling, bulldozing trails and building a 50-person work camp in an area considered a sacred site by the First Nation.

On Friday the B.C. Supreme Court turned down an application by the federal government to stop the exploration work, ruling that it does not violate the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

The federal government, which has twice turned down Taskeko’s application for an open-pit copper-gold mine because of “significant adverse environmental effects,” argued that a plan for 122 exploratory drill holes, 367 excavated test pits and 20 kilometres of seismic lines, violated the Environmental Assessment Act.

The federal government contended the activities are not truly exploratory, but instead, are detailed design work for the proposed New Prosperity Mine  — a plan that has already been rejected.

The mine, proposed for an area 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, cannot be built without federal approval.

Last year, at the height of wildfires in the area, and days before the new NDP government was to be sworn in, the former B.C. Liberal government authorized Taseko to go ahead with the exploration work. The provincial government previously issued an environmental assessment certificate for the mine in 2010.

Taseko argued successfully in court that the exploration activities are not within the scope of the federal Assessment Act and the injunction application was refused by Judge Carla Forth.

A company spokesman previously said a court ruling was needed to sort out a jurisdictional dispute between the federal and provincial governments and that the drilling and trail-building was simply information-gathering.

On Monday lawyers for the Tsilhqot’in Nation were in B.C. Supreme Court asking for a judicial review of the B.C. Mines Act permit for the drilling program and asking for an injunction to stop the work from proceeding in the meantime.

Taseko’s continuing efforts to build a mine, in a spiritually and culturally significant area, is a waste of everyone’s time and should never have happened, said Chief Russell Myers Ross, Tsilhqot’in National Government vice-chairman.

“The approval of an extensive drilling program for the stated purpose of advancing the New Prosperity project — after it was rejected by the federal government and after Taseko’s legal challenges were dismissed by the Federal Court — is absolutely absurd,” he said.

Tribal Chairman Joe Alphonse said Taseko is making a mockery of the environmental review process and the justice system and illustrates why the provincial environmental review  process needs to change.

“Cases like the Tsilhqot’in decision have led to policy changes throughout Canada — it’s time for business and government in B.C. to follow suit,” Alphonse said in a news release.

The B.C. government is currently conducting a review of the environmental assessment process.

In a landmark case in 2014, the Supreme Court of Canada granted aboriginal title to the Tsilhqot’in for about 1,700 square kilometres of land. The proposed mine is adjacent to that area and the First Nations have declared it an area of proven aboriginal rights.

Plans for the  $1.3-billion New Prosperity Mine, which Taseko describes as Canada’s largest undeveloped copper-gold project, took the place of the company’s initial application for the Prosperity Mine, which was rejected by the federal government, largely because of plans to drain Fish Lake, known as Teztan Biny in Tsilhqot’in language.

“Right now, the only thing that could stand in the way of Taseko Mines sending in bulldozers and drills into Fish Lake is the Tsilhqot’in National Government’s judicial review and injunction application — or B.C. NDP action of some kind,” JP Laplante, the First Nation’s mining, oil and gas manager said in an email.

The B.C Supreme Court case is scheduled to continue until Thursday.

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