The ?Esdilagh First Nation has secured a research grant for a team of international experts to lead a health impact assessment, which the group is calling the first of its kind in Canada.
Chief Bernie Elkins Mack said that existing studies of the copper-molybdenum mine near Williams Lake, B.C., are not rigorous enough, yet the mine was approved for an expansion that doubled its output.
"My number one priority is to encourage our members to use the land that we have next to the mine. Government and industry are always telling us, 'No, it's safe,' but they have no real evidence on the ground that it is," he said in an interview.
But Taseko Mines Ltd. (TSX:TKO), which owns the mine, said it was required as part of its permit to conduct a human health and ecological risk assessment, which the province requested to alleviate the First Nation's concerns.
Brian Battison, Taseko's vice-president of corporate affairs, said the company has been trying to meet with the ?Esdilagh to incorporate the nation's questions into the study, but the band has repeatedly refused.
"It's pretty frustrating for us to be criticized now by this band, given the effort that we've gone to to try and satisfy their concerns," he said.
Battison said the company has spent more than $200,000 on the study so far. The mine has been operating for more than 40 years and the company has continuously collected data on soil, air quality and water, he added.
"That's a big part of what this is, is to take all of this information that we have and put it into a format that's completely understandable to laypeople," he said.
Mack denied his band has refused to meet with Taseko. He said he last met with the company in December and a planned meeting for this month fell through due to a scheduling mix-up.
"The bottom line is that we feel the study they're doing is too narrow," he said. "We've asked for broader research and both the government and Taseko are not on the same page, so that's why our review will be broader."
The B.C. Ministry of Environment said environmental studies, focusing on issues like contaminant monitoring and sturgeon migration, have been completed and shared with the ?Esdilagh.
The province confirmed it required Taseko to conduct a human health and ecological risk assessment after a review of the mine expansion. The company was also asked to do additional groundwater monitoring and develop a site-wide water quality model, the ministry said.
The ministry said it is interested in receiving the results of the community study and will review it to see if it can incorporate its findings.
The Gibraltar Mine is the second-largest open pit copper mine in Canada. Originally designed to process 36,000 tonnes of ore per day, the mine underwent an expansion in 2012 and can now process up to 85,000 tonnes daily.
The ?Esdilagh's lands are adjacent to the mine and the nation is concerned about impacts on fishing, farming and hunting.
The ?Esdilagh is one of six that make up the Tsilhqot'in National Government, which became the first aboriginal band in Canada to win title to its land in a historic Supreme Court decision last June.
The First Nation study is being supported by grants from the Vancouver Foundation and the Canadian Institute for Health Information. It will be led by Dr. Janis Shandro and Dr. Aleck Ostry of the University of Victoria as well as Dr. Mirko Winkler of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Switzerland.
Shandro said the study will meet international standards and will explore environmental, health and cultural impacts of the Gibraltar Mine and provide recommendations for Taseko and the government.
She said the mine has never undergone an environmental impact assessment because it was built before legislation requiring such studies was introduced. The current study Taseko is undertaking is too limited, Shandro said.
"The reason for the commissioning of this project is that we want to see communities, governments and industry working together in a more rigorous fashion," she said.
"This isn't an anti-mining or anti-government project. This is a project that we hope will bring all of these parties together to really address risk aspects and opportunity."
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