07/14/2013 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Taseko Mines Williams Lake Project Rejection Prompts Company To Lobby Feds, Documents Reveal

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WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. - The company behind a rejected billion-dollar gold and copper mine in the British Columbia Interior has been lobbying for the federal government to change the environmental assessment process that previously rejected the project, documents show.

And Taseko Mines Ltd. likes what it's heard, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press.

"I believe that yourself and the government of Canada are showing great leadership by taking an unapologetic approach to the responsible development of this country's natural resources," John McManus, senior vice-president of operations for Taseko Mines Ltd. (TSX:TKO), wrote to Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver following a January 2012 meeting in Vancouver.

The proposed New Prosperity Gold-Copper Mine was rejected by a federal environmental assessment panel in 2010 over concerns about the environmental impact, specifically the plan to drain a nearby lake for use as a tailings pond.

Public hearings before a new panel are to begin this week in Williams Lake, B.C., for a revised mine proposal. The planned site is located about 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake.

A spokesman for Taseko Mines Ltd. suggested this time, the outcome may be different.

"We feel very optimistic," Brian Battison, vice-president of corporate affairs, said in a recent interview.

The mine proposal has been revised to save Fish Lake, a lake of cultural significance to local First Nations and the primary concern of the last environmental assessment panel.

But while the project has been revised, the company made it clear to the federal government that it was not happy with the outcome of the previous panel.

"Even though the leaders have a clear vision of what they believe should happen, that vision becomes less and less clear the deeper you go into the organization," McManus said in his Jan. 26, 2012 letter obtained by The Canadian Press using Access to Information laws.

The letter outlines several specific issues with process, including panels that go outside their mandate and "overzealous individuals in government (who) will tend to make statements and information requests either outside their ministry's authority, outside their own area of expertise, or insignificant in terms of environmental effect."

"As I said at the meeting on Monday, we applaud your courage in calling it the way you see it and in moving strongly not just to get the job done well, but also to get the job done period," McManus wrote.

Briefing notes prepared for Oliver, also obtained by The Canadian Press, note that B.C. Premier Christy Clark has highlighted to her federal counterparts the economic importance of the mine. The B.C. government has committed to advancing eight major mining projects as key parts of its economic development plan, including the New Prosperity mine, the memo said.

The B.C. government approved the mine in 2010, finding that the economic benefits outweighed the environmental effects.

But the project has twice failed to pass the federal environmental assessment process — terminated by Taseko in 1997 and rejected by the panel in 2010.

An August 2011 briefing prepared for Oliver ahead of a planned discussion with Taseko Mines Ltd. suggested he ask Taseko officials what steps they have taken to establish a better working relationship with aboriginal groups that object to the project, but it appears there has been no reconciliation with area bands.

Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot'in National Government based in Williams Lake, said the revised project plan will still destroy the lake, either by draining or eventually contaminating the site.

The First Nation will take part in the environmental assessment hearings but it is already preparing for a court challenge, Alphonse said.

"We have a majority Conservative government that is more concerned about revenue than anything else," he said.

"When you have corrupt government and companies that feel like they own the process, and we as First Nations are nothing but a hindrance, the courts are there to protect us."

The revised proposal is similar to an alternative examined during the first environmental review, said the internal federal documents.

"This alternative, preserving Fish Lake, had been considered by the proponent to be economically unfeasible and likely to result in the degradation of water quality in Fish Lake due to effluents seeping from the upstream tailings facility," said one internal government report.

Closing remarks for the public hearings are scheduled for Aug. 23, after a month of various hearings that will visit 10 local aboriginal communities. The panel has until the end of October to submit its report and recommendation to the federal environment minister, and a decision on the project is expected by March.

The $1-billion open-pit gold and copper mine would be located 550 kilometres northeast of Vancouver. Taseko estimates it would generate 550 direct jobs, and contribute $340 million in gross domestic product for B.C. annually.

Taseko has already spent in excess of $120 million on the proposal, Battison said. Metal prices remain high, the project remains viable, and there is widespread local support, he said.

"We like British Columbia. It's our home. All the guys that are running the company are from B.C.," he said. "We want to work at home."

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