A lack of formal recommendations for the last two projects approved by the Mackenzie Valley Review Board has environmental monitors and First Nations worried about a lack of real protection for environmental and cultural resources in the NWT.
The Canadian Zinc Corp Prairie Creek mine project in the Mackenzie mountains of Nahanni National Park, approved in early December, and Alex Debogorski’s recently approved Drybones Bay diamond exploration project were both passed by the review board with suggestions, rather than recommendations requiring that impact-mitigating measures be implemented.
“In this case, the board’s finding was that there were no significant adverse impacts on the environment or public concern,” Review Board president Vern Christensen told The Journal. “If they had determined there was a significant impact, then they would have determined measures to mitigate that impact.”
Christensen said determination of significance lies with the subjectivity of board members.
“There is no formula, per se,” he said. “They consider all the information provided to them over the course of the environmental assessment and decide if it’s significant enough.”
For Chuck Blyth, former superintendent of Nahanni Park and a long-time resource management consultant, both decisions highlight an unsettling new precedent being set for environmental assessments that do very little to protect environmental and cultural resources, or address public concerns.
“These Drybones Bay and Canadian Zinc ones came out in a couple weeks of each other and seem very similar,” said Blyth. “It’s identical – public concerns ignored, First Nations concerns ignored.”
In the environmental review process, a project only moves to the assessment stage after it is determined that the proposal has the potential for significant public concern or impact on the environment. After the assessment is completed, it is decided if the project will be denied, approved with recommended measures for mitigation, or will be sent on for a much lengthier Environmental Impact Review (EIR).
However, in the cases of Canadian Zinc and Debogorski, the review board did none of the above, instead determining that there was “no significant impact” on the environment or public concern, despite Blyth pointing out a report full of evidence to the contrary.
“If you read the report, it documents 36 significant concerns and five no-go environmental issues, and then yet after you read it, they say there are no effects,” Blyth said of the Prairie Creek mine approval. “The things identified in pre-screening were still present at the end. How can you say there are no effects when you are saying yes?”
When the board rules there are no significant effects, the only thing the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) can do to change the decision is send it to the incredibly time-consuming and expensive EIR process or let it go ahead. There is no other opportunity to modify the decision.
Blyth said the latest approvals mark the first time he has seen a “no impact” result for projects of this significance.
“They should have said there is significant public concern,” he said, citing firm opposition from the Yellowknives Dene as an example. “Because if that’s not ‘significant,’ what is?”
Suggestions are discretionary
According to the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board (MVLWB), which permits activities based on recommendations from the Review Board, suggestions are not mandatory in the same way that measures are.
“Recommended measures have to be implemented by the Land and Water Board with the tools that they have in the regulations,” said MVLWB spokesperson Shannon Ward. “Suggestions are more discretionary; they might be implemented by the Land and Water Board and they might not be.”
Yellowknives Dene (Dettah) Chief Edward Sangris said last week that he doesn’t anticipate the suggestions doing much to protect the archaeological history of Drybones Bay, and accused the review board of lowering its standards for clearly-defined project proposals.
“These suggestions are not substantive and the board has demonstrated no previous ability to enforce similar suggested measures,” he stated.
Blyth agreed. He said ultimately, the MVLWB will have no authority to enforce the suggestions.
“Suggestions are usually for things outside your jurisdiction,” he said. “They are nice to consider, but not mandatory. So the Land and Water Board doesn’t have to (implement them) and the company doesn’t have to.”
Blyth added that even if the regulator tried to enforce the suggestions, the company could take them to court.
“There’s no legal basis to make them do anything because they are just suggestions,” he said. “And the Review Board said there isn’t any effect, so there you go.”
But Christensen said anything the MVLWB puts in their permits will need to be followed.
“Suggestions aren’t directions to regulators, but if a regulator chose to incorporate them into a permit, they would have to be followed,” he said.
The Land and Water Board was unable to comment on permitting for either the Prairie Creek mine or Debogorski’s diamond exploration project because they are active files.