The proposed Ajax mine, a 1,700-hectare open-pit gold and copper mine near Kamloops, B.C., was denied a provincial environmental certificate from the B.C. government Thursday.
Environment Minister George Heyman and Minister of Energy and Mines, Michelle Mungall, found the benefits of the 18-year project, which has received vocal opposition from local communities and First Nations, do not outweigh its significant, adverse effects.
“This project was subject to a great deal of scrutiny and discussion over seven years,” Heyman told reporters in a press briefing, noting the federal government has yet to issue its final decision on the project.
“No matter what they decision by the federal government, this project would require a provincial certificate to go ahead. Our decision is to not issue one.”
Not a Matter of Indigenous Veto: Heyman
Polish firm KGHM Polska Miedz first proposed Ajax in 2011 on the traditional territory of the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwépemc First Nation (SSN).
The mine’s proximity to Kamloops, adverse impacts on First Nations land uses, impacts on communities and property values, proximity to schools, affects on air quality were all considered in the decision, Heyman said.
“Those were all factors and they were compounding,” he said, adding, “many of which we believed were of high to moderate impact magnitude and could not be mitigated.”
In 2015 the SSN filed an Aboriginal title claim to the land with the B.C. Supreme Court and in 2017 the nation announced it would not give the province its free, prior and informed consent for the project, saying the mine’s location is in opposition to land use plans for the “profoundly sacred, culturally important, and historically significant cultural keystone site.”
“We Secwepemc have never ceded or surrendered our rights or title,” Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc Chief Fred Seymour said in a statement.
”The British Columbian Government, in choosing to refuse KGHM Ajax’s environmental assessment, are enacting their commitment to uphold the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights and to implement the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Seymour said.
Minister Heyman was quick to clarify the government’s rejection of the mine did not constitute an Indigenous veto of the project.
“I would not say this decision paves the way for vetoes or even that, were this decision made solely on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which it wasn’t, that it constituted a veto,” the minister said.
“We are willing to partner with Indigenous nations to see how we incorporate those principles,” he added. “Detailed consultation is important, accommodation and mitigation is important.”
Ajax Mine Subject to Historic Indigenous-Led Assessment
Plans for the mine included the destruction of Jacko Lake and the Pípsell Cultural and Heritage Area, a part of the SSN’s ancestral lands giving rise to the oral story the ‘Trout Children.’
Under the previous federal government, the Ajax mine was exempted from a full review under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and subjected to a less rigorous Comprehensive Study.
The SSN’s request for a federal Independent Review Panel to consider the project was rejected in 2015, leading the nation to initiate what is considered a historical indigenous-led assessment of the mine, based in traditional law, customs and practices.
The assessment concluded the mine would negatively impact the air and water quality of the region and irreversibly affect Pípsell culture and heritage. The B.C. government’s assessment released today follows suit.
Known as Pipsell to the Secwepemc people, Jacko Lake is the site of “The Trout Children” story from local First Nations oral history. Photo: Carol Linnitt
Minister Heyman said the SSN assessment did inform B.C.’s own assessment of the mine, and vice versa.
“We tried to conduct the assessment in concert with the SSN and ensure the joint federal-provincial and SSN reports informed each other’s work.”
Jacinda Mack from the Secwepemc and Nuxalk nations and coordinator for First Nations Women Advocating for Responsible Mining, said the indigenous-informed environmental assessment championed by the SSN is an important example for B.C. to follow.
“It’s important to follow Indigenous leadership and reconciliation with land and peoples,” Mack told DeSmog Canada.
“The SSN assessment was innovative and inclusive and was supported by a lot of people in Kamloops who did not support the Ajax mine going ahead.”
Mack said the indigenous-led assessment should be used as a model to improve both the federal and provincial environmental assessment processes going forward.
Nikki Skuce, director of Northern Confluence, agreed, saying the final B.C. assessment came to many of the same conclusions as the SSN report.
“Today’s decision…provides some hope that the commitment to revitalizing B.C.'s Environmental Assessment Act will incorporate UNDRIP, sustainability principles and community input,” Skuce told DeSmog Canada.
Ajax Mine Beset with Environmental Assessment Woes
The Ajax mine, which has often been characterized as ‘too big and too close’ to the city of Kamloops with a population of 90,000, has received staunch criticism for its inadequate and rushed environmental assessment process.
This past July Kamloops city councillor Dan Walsh penned a letter to provincial and federal assessment agencies, expressing concern with the legitimacy and independence of the review.
“It’s a flawed process and the deck is stacked in favour of proponents,” Walsh then told DeSmog Canada.
Walsh said the process failed to allow municipalities any control in the decision-making process. He added the Ajax mine proposal was being considered despite a failure to eliminate new tailings pond dams as recommended following the Mount Polley disaster.
Changes also hadn’t been made to separate monitoring and enforcement activities from the Energy and Mines Ministry as recommended by the Auditor General, Walsh said.
Minister Heyman’s mandate involves revitalizing B.C.’s environmental assessment process.
Speaking with reporters today, Heyman said it’s not government’s desire to reject a project seven years into the assessment process.
“Obviously we want a new environmental assessment process that respects the legal rights of First Nations as well as our commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Tsilhqot'in decision and the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Heyman said.
He added it is imperative for government to enhance the public’s confidence in the process and “encourage proponents to work from the beginning with First Nations.”
“We want to look at identifying key factors that will go into our decision-making so we can understand if a project has a good chance of success…and where a project will require significant measures before it has a chance of being approved.”
Image: KGHM Old Afton mine via KGHM website