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Prairie Creek mine assessment moves forward

Roxanna Thompson
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, March 26, 2009

DEH CHO - Two organizations are celebrating a favourable ruling in regards to the Prairie Creek mine.

On March 5, the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board ruled that all the physical works and activities associated with both the winter access road and the existing mine structures can be included in the scope of development for the Prairie Creek Mine environmental assessment.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

The Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board has ruled that the Prairie Creek winter access road, seen here as it winds over the Ram Plateau, can be included in the scope of development for an environmental assessment on the area's proposed mining project. - NNSL file photo

The decision is the result of a request for ruling submitted to the board by Ecojustice, formerly Sierra Legal, on behalf of the Dehcho First Nations (DFN) and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society-NWT (CPAWS).

"We're very gratified the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board has made this decision to scope in the entire Prairie Creek mine project," said Lani Cooke, the executive director for CPAWS-NWT.

The request for ruling was received during the scoping phase of the environmental assessment. The assessment process started after Canadian Zinc applied for four permits for the mine, including a type A water licence and a type A land use permit, that, in conjunction with other sub-permits, would allow the company to start production at the mine.

The scoping phase determines what the assessment should focus on. The request for ruling led the board to ask all interested parties for opinions on whether the winter road and existing facilities at the mine should be covered by the assessment.

Both DFN and CPAWS argued the winter road needed to be included.

"It seemed inappropriate to have different parts of the mine operation severed from the environmental assessment," said Cooke.

Both groups are concerned about the impact the road and the mine could have on the South Nahanni watershed and the surrounding land.

"The land is important to all of us. Our elders have always insisted the land comes first," said Grand Chief Jerry Antoine of the Dehcho First Nations.

DFN says the environmental assessment is a tool to help it decide the next step needed to protect the integrity of the watershed, said Antoine. The mine is a challenge to that goal, he said.

"We are certainly pleased that the board has taken a step in the right direction," said Antoine, referring to the ruling.

Although the review board has ruled the winter road and the existing mine structures can be included in the scope of development the degree to which each will be examined in the environmental assessment hasn't been decided, said Alistair MacDonald, an environmental assessment officer with the board.

The board is currently working on draft terms of reference that will lay out the scope of assessment, the issues that require further study or the compilation of existing material to decide how the mine will interact with the environment.

"Some aspects of the development may be looked at very closely," said MacDonald.

Other parts of the mine will only be looked at in a cursory manner depending on the potential for environmental impact, he said.

For Prairie Creek the parties have already agreed on the most important issues, which include, water quality and the ecological integrity of the Nahanni National Park Reserve, said MacDonald.

The draft terms of reference and the draft work plan are expected to be released in the next few weeks. In its ruling, the board noted that it will be taking into consideration all the existing studies, that date as far back as the 1980s, before determining if additional studies are required.

"It's not typical to have this much historical information available during an environmental assessment," said MacDonald.

"It's a wealth of information to do good environmental assessment with."

Canadian Zinc, the company that owns the Prairie Creek mine, is taking the ruling in stride.

During the scoping process the company argued that the winter road should not be part of the environmental assessment because they received a permit last year to operate it. They also pointed to a decision by the Supreme Court of the NWT in which it was ruled that the road was exempt from environmental assessment.

Now that the board has passed its ruling, Canadian Zinc is anxious to move forward with the environmental assessment, said John Kearney, the company's president.

"The ruling plus the comments is something we're comfortable with so long as the terms of reference are consistent with the comments," he said.

Kearney points to the fact that the board has accepted Canadian Zinc's argument that conducting an impact assessment on the construction of facilities, like the road, that have already been in place for more than 25 years, isn't likely to generate any useful information.

In its ruling, the board stated that assessment of existing facilities would be restricted to the effects of their ongoing operation.

"That's an important ruling," he said.

Canadian Zinc is now waiting for the draft terms of reference to be released so they can see the details of how the environmental assessment will unfold.

"Hopefully they will be something we can get on with," Kearney said.