Right to public participation upheld in Canada: The case of the Red Chris mine

Red Chris Mine
British Columbia, Canada

Victory in Court, yet decision on mine still pending

The Klappan River Valley in northern British Columbia is a remote, pristine area known for its beautiful rivers and lakes, large mammals and highly productive salmon runs. Unfortunately for the people and wildlife that live there, it is also prized for its minerals. Imperial Metals wants to develop a project called Red Chris, an open-pit copper and gold mine that would process 30,000 metric tons of ore a day.

The Red Chris mine would be located on the Todigan Plateau, virtually in the backyard of the Tahltan Indigenous Nation. The plateau and the rivers that run through it are traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Noise-sensitive Stone’s Sheep roam freely and use the plateau as a nursery but could be forced to migrate if mining begins. The magnificent Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park, known as “British Columbia’s Serengeti” for its caribou, grizzly and moose, also lies adjacent to the proposed mine.

One of the most potentially dangerous impacts of any mining operation is the storage of tailings (the contaminated rock sludge left over after the valuable minerals are extracted). The Red Chris project proposes damming Black Lake and converting it into a tailings pond where the company would dump its toxic mine waste, potentially destroying the lake. In the event of an accident, mine waste could also spill over into the valley and contaminate many salmon-filled rivers and streams.

Despite the large scale of the proposed mine project and its potentially severe impacts, the Canadian authorities approved the Red Chris mine in 2006 after conducting a simple “screening” assessment without any public participation. They did so by cutting the project into smaller pieces and evaluating only impacts from the tailings pond, water diversion system and explosives facility, while not considering the environmental impacts of the actual mine and mill. This decision led MiningWatch Canada to file suit, represented by Ecojustice.

In August 2009, AIDA joined Canadian environmental groups in challenging this project and the lack of environmental impact assessment before the Supreme Court of Canada. Working with our Canadian partners, we helped prepare a submission to the court arguing that, under Canadian and international law, Canadian environmental authorities must conduct a full environmental impact assessment before approving the Red Chris project. That assessment should include active public participation by local communities and groups.

After a lengthy legal battle, on January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court of Canada held that federal authorities are not allowed to split a project into bite-size parts to avoid their legal obligations. The Court’s decision supports AIDA and its allies’ arguments that such “project-splitting” violates international principles for conducting proper environmental assessments and the right to public participation.

From now on, Canadian authorities will be required to conduct comprehensive environmental impact studies and allow for active public participation in all mining and other industrial projects of this size and nature.  As for the Red Chris mine, final approval by Canadian authorities is still pending.

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