WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. - With all eyes on hearings for the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline that would link Alberta's oil sands to tankers on the B.C. coast, a federal environmental review of another contentious B.C. project is quietly getting underway.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has released guidelines and terms of reference that will form the framework for an environmental review of Taseko Mines Ltd.'s (TSX:TKO) proposed Prosperity gold and copper mine in the B.C. Interior.
The agency is seeking comments on the documents until Feb. 22.
But the approach of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government toward the federal hearings on the Northern Gateway doesn't give First Nations opponents much faith in the environmental review of the mine.
"We feel the writing's on the wall," Chief Joe Alphonse, leader of the Tsilqhot'in National Government, said in an interview.
"Mr. Harper is making statements around the Enbridge project that anyone opposing the project is an enemy of Canada. That's the same situation."
Alphonse said he fears that approval of the Prosperity Mine, 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, B.C., is a foregone conclusion.
The Tsilqhot'in will still take part in the review, however, "as distasteful as that might be," Alphonse said.
"Our position is that we have to participate to protect our interests... we still have to go through the motions because, at the end of the day, when that political process fails us, we still have to turn to the courts for justice and the moment we walk into a courtroom they're going to tell us: you had to participate."
Taseko's original proposal for the $1.5-billion project was accepted by the province but rejected by a federal environmental panel last year because the company wanted to drain Fish Lake for use as a tailings pond.
The revised proposal would see the company spend $300 million to build its own tailings pond, rather than use the trout-bearing lake, known to local First Nations as Tetzan Biny.
In December, the Tsilqhot'in First Nation was granted a court injunction to stop Taseko from undertaking exploratory work on the mine pending the review.
Although the Tsilqhot'in will participate in the review, the band did not apply for money from a federal fund for aboriginal groups to participate, nor did most other First Nations groups in the area.
The federal agency announced last week that nine groups will split nearly $138,000 in federal funding to participate in the review.
But while more than $200,000 was available to aboriginal groups to allow them to participate, only one group made an application. The Esketemc First Nation asked for and received $27,800.
The Metis Nation of British Columbia, whose application was transferred from a general funding program, will also receive $19,000.
Seven other interest groups will receive a total of $91,000 from the separate, general participant funding program, including Friends of Nemaiah Valley, which will receive $19,000, and the Sierra Club of British Columbia, which will receive $18,600.
MiningWatch Canada, the Williams Lake and District Chamber of Commerce, Share the Cariboo-Chilcotin Resources Society, and the Environmental Mining Education Foundation will also receive funds, as well as an individual named Federico G. Osorio.
Brian Battison, vice-president of corporate affairs for Taseko, said the company is looking at the guidelines and preparing its response, which is "a tremendous amount of work."
Battison said much of the original mine proposal was accepted by the first review panel, and those aspects will not have to be reviewed again. What has changed are the two aspects around the use of Fish Lake as a tailings pond.
"It's a significant difference. It's a $300-million difference in terms of cost, to save the lake."
Battison said the project has community support in the Cariboo region, where it will have a significant economic impact.
Agency spokesperson Lucille Jamault said members of the public have until Feb. 22 to submit written comments on the draft guidelines and the terms of reference, then the next step will be for the federal environment minister to name the panel, which was given a year to complete the review when it was announced last November.
A band election in Tsi Del Del, in Alexis Creek, earlier this month served as a referendum of sorts on the issue. Chief Percy Guichon, a vocal critic of the mine development, soundly defeated a challenger who was in favour of the mine in a campaign dominated by the issue.
Taseko says Prosperity - the largest undeveloped gold-copper deposit in Canada and seventh largest in the world - will generate 71,000 jobs over the course of its operation and put $10 billion in government coffers.