By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
OTTAWA–The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has over the past 15 years consistently raised objections to Taskeo Mine Inc’s controversial Prosperity gold and copper project in British Columbia’s interior, documents provided to APTN National News show.
Letters from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to provincial and company officials, along with a February 2000 draft briefing to the federal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, show that the department has consistently balked at the company’s plan to drain Fish Lake, a body of water that is sacred to area First Nations communities.
The documents show that DFO originally rejected Taskeo’s project 15 years ago, but was open to approving it if the company found a way to build the mine without draining the lake. The company began exploring alternatives in the late 1990s, but eventually decided that all other options were too expensive, the documents show.
In its latest proposal, Taseko has plans to build a replacement lake, called Prosperity Lake, in an attempt to meet DFO’s “no net loss” policy.
The policy states that when it is unavoidable, proponents need to provide replacement for destroyed fish habitat.
DFO raised concerns about the replacement lake proposal in its submissions to the Canadian Environment Assessment panel reviewing the project saying that it may not meet its “no net loss” policy.
As Taseko was gearing up for its latest run to get the project approved, DFO again sounded warning bells about Prosperity mine’s impact on fish habitat.
“In the case of your proposed development, DFO does not consider artificial production to be appropriate as compensation for potential loss of productive capacity,” said the April 1, 2008, letter from Adam Silverstien, DFO’s environmental assessment and major projects manager, to Roderick Bell-Irving, Taskeo’s environmental assessment manager.
“Taseko’s proposed development would cause permanent and irreversible loss of a large area of productive fish habitat.”
The letter was part of a package of documents obtained under the Access to Information Act by the Tsilhqot’in nation and provided to APTN National News.
The Tsilhqot’in have vowed to stop the project at all costs.
The ministerial briefing document reveals that DFO has consistently opposed the project over its devastating impact on the Taseko River system, which is one of Canada’s six main producers of sockeye salmon.
The system also supports Chinook salmon and endangered stocks of steelhead trout, the briefing said.
The briefing stated that allowing the draining of a lake would only be allowed as a last resort, but the department considered existing options to preserve the body of water viable despite their price tag.
The briefing stated that the department’s “no net loss” policy may not even apply to the project because destruction of the lake was not unavoidable.
“Only after it is shown that habitat losses are unavoidable can one apply the principle. Habitat losses at Fish Lake are avoidable, albeit expensive,” states the briefing.
The briefing also outlined the uniqueness of the lake, calling it a “self-contained ecosystem supporting an indigenous stock.”
The briefing said that the lake, which is one of the “top ten catch rates in the province,” holds an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 rainbow trout.
“No wonder it is called ‘Fish Lake,'” said the briefing. “Of the 5,000 lakes in the Cariboo Region, only 10 per cent support a sport fishery. Only about 17 per cent of these lakes support a self-sustaining, monoculture rainbow trout fishery.”
The briefing concluded that the department was awaiting the company’s latest report on the project before making a final decision.
The B.C. government, which approved the project earlier this year, was warned by federal officials in the mid-1990s that the project, as it stood, would not receive federal backing as a result of its heavy environmental toll.
“The analysis carried out by DFO officials has concluded that there would be permanent destruction of high-quality fish habitats if the project proceeds as presently planned, and that compensation, as defined by the DFO policy for the management of fish habitat, does not appear to be technically feasible in this case,” said an Oct. 30, 1995 letter to a provincial assistant deputy minister with Ministry of Environment from DFO’s executive director of habitat enhancement. “Accordingly, since it appears that the project cannot be mitigated and that compensation is not technically feasible, I will not recommend to my superiors that…authorization be issued for this project.”
The provincial government approved the mine arguing the billions of dollars in economic benefit outweighed the environmental and cultural toll the project would inflict on the area.
The project now needs only approval from the federal cabinet to become reality.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment panel concluded this summer that the project would have a devastating impact on the local ecosystem and on First Nations communities that have used the area since time immemorial.
DFO is the lead federal department on the project as a result of the company’s plan to alter an existing watershed to construct the mine.
The federal cabinet is expected to have several reports in hand when considering the future of the mine, including the position of DFO.
A decision is expected this month or in early October.
The Prosperity mine site lies about 230 kilometres north of Vancouver.