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Yes to jobs but no to environmental impacts
Fort Resolution has its say on Avalon Rare Metals' proposed mine and plant at board hearing

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 25, 2013

Lots of support was expressed - along with plenty of concern for the environment - at last week's hearing in Fort Resolution on Avalon Rare Metals Inc.'s proposed mine and processing plant on the shores of Great Slave Lake.

Avalon made the case for its Nechalacho project - a proposed rare earth elements mine at Thor Lake on the north side of Great Slave Lake - and a planned hydrometallurgical plant at Pine Point on the south side at a Feb. 22 public hearing of the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board.

Despite environmental worries, the majority of Fort Resolution residents at the hearing want the economic benefits of the plant, which would be fed with ore barged across Great Slave Lake.

One of the strongest comments in favour of the project came from Wilfred Simon, a community wellness worker, who noted Fort Resolution is the oldest community in the NWT, but the least developed of the major communities.

"We're always underdeveloped because we're always pushing development away from this community and we get nothing out of it," he said, adding he is all for development.

Deninu Ku'e First Nation (DKFN) Chief Louis Balsillie said he hopes the project happens for the betterment of Fort Resolution.

"We're in dire need of this project to move ahead," he said, noting the community requires jobs.

DKFN supports the project under a so-called accommodation agreement signed last year with Avalon Rare Metals. It provides for business and employment opportunities for DKFN and mitigation of environmental and cultural impacts, along with an ownership stake.

Kara King, president of the Fort Resolution Metis Council, said it would be good to have jobs, but representatives of the community have to look out for the best interests of the people and their culture.

"I'm hoping that we are going to find a way for that," King said.

David Swisher, vice-president of operations with Avalon, outlined the project in a glowing presentation which described minimal environmental impacts over the anticipated 20-year lifespan of the mine and plant.

The company executive said air, water and wildlife are not expected to be negatively impacted, and barging across the lake would be very safe. In fact, he noted the ore to be transported is non-soluble, meaning it would not cause any contamination even in the highly unlikely event of a barge sinking.

However, trapper and fisherman Arthur Beck said he is very concerned about the barging idea, despite the company's assurances.

"Everything is good on paper," he said, referring to Avalon's description of how things would operate.

Swisher also sought to calm concerns about radioactivity.

"Our deposit does contain uranium and thorium, but they're in very, very small amounts," he said, noting the levels are so low they don't even trigger any additional permitting requirements.

Despite that reassurance, several people expressed worry about radioactivity, including Linda Vanden Berg, a negotiator with DKFN.

"The concerns are real. Thorium and uranium are scary words," Vanden Berg said, noting the levels could be higher than Avalon anticipates.

"We're not out to delay the project here. We're not out to stop the mine," she said, explaining the intention is to ensure worker safety.

Hay River Mayor Andrew Cassidy expressed support for the project.

"Although there are some concerns from various stakeholders, and we've heard comments both negative and positive, I believe that we all realize that responsible, sustainable development and growth for the North, and in particular the South Slave, is in our collective interests," Cassidy said.

After the ore goes through the hydrometallurgical plant at Pine Point, it would be trucked to Hay River where it would be placed on trains for a journey to a separation plant in Louisiana.

The Pine Point plant would create 65-80 jobs, while the Thor Lake mine would create 225 jobs.

An old Cominco mine, which once existed at Pine Point, cast a long shadow over the hearing. Pointing to the scarred land left by the old mine, Fort Resolution resident Philip Beaulieu said, "It's very hard to trust industry."

Many others also mentioned the old Pine Point mine, including Vanden Berg.

"Avalon has a large hurdle to jump, that of assuring the bands that you are not like other mines," she said, adding Avalon needs to understand the history of DKFN.

Many people expressed frustration that members of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Yellowknife do not recognize traditional use of the land north of Great Slave Lake by members of Deninu Ku'e First Nation, which is an important factor in DKFN benefitting from the mine and processing plant.

"I'm sure they know they're wrong, but I don't know why they keep bringing this up," said Tom Beaulieu, a resident of Fort Resolution.

A number of elders related their traditional knowledge of Fort Resolution people fishing and hunting north of the lake.

The Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board also held three days of hearings in Yellowknife last week on Avalon's proposed project.

The board will now prepare a report for the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

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