VANCOUVER - Two veteran Conservative MPs are speaking out against their own government after a proposal for a billion-dollar gold and copper mine in British Columbia was rejected by Ottawa for a second time.
Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced late Wednesday that she has rejected the $1.5-billion plan from Taseko Mines Ltd. (TSX:TKO) over environmental concerns.
A broad range of opponents celebrated the decision, including the Sierra Club, the Council of Canadians and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
But Conservative MPs Dick Harris and Cathy McLeod both publicly objected.
Harris, who was first elected under the Reform banner in 1993, said he felt "a little bit of despair" about a decision, which shatters the hopes of thousands of people in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region he represents.
He described it as an economically depressed area where many people have been forced to leave to find work elsewhere.
"Taseko mine was their ticket to come back," Harris said in an interview. "The Taseko project was going to allow them to be trained and skilled and employed in a good-paying, 25- to 30-year job in the mine just right out in the area where they live. And this is gone now as a result of the decision."
McLeod, who represents the neighbouring Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo riding, called it a huge blow.
"There are tens of thousands of people in the Cariboo who were looking at this project as a lifeline and an opportunity in communities that have been very hard hit," she said. "I really am feeling incredibly disappointed."
The gold and copper deposit where the mine was planned is 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, B.C., and is the tenth-largest undeveloped deposit in the world.
Aglukkaq said she rejected the mine because it would have had significant adverse environmental effects that could not be mitigated.
A similar proposal by Taseko was approved by the B.C. government four years ago but rejected by Ottawa because the plan included draining a lake to hold tailings.
The B.C. government lobbied hard for the revised proposal, which the company said preserved Fish Lake, but a federal environmental review panel found the mine would still have significant adverse effects.
B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett, who had visited Ottawa several times in recent months to press for approval, said the company had a plan that would have avoided the dire impacts that were feared.
"I wasn't successful in making the case in a strong enough way for the federal government to give them the courage that they would have needed to have essentially gone against their own (review) panel," Bennett said.
A spokeswoman for Aglukkaq said she respects the disappointed, but the government is committed to making such decisions based on the scientific evidence and environmental considerations.
"A rigorous review by an independent review panel determined that the project would result in significant adverse environmental impacts, and the Governor in Council determined that these impacts are not justified," Jennifer Kennedy said in an emailed response to questions.
Taseko is pursuing a judicial review of the assessment in Federal Court, arguing that the panel used the wrong information in drawing its conclusions.
Brian Battison, vice-president of corporate affairs, said the company won't take no for an answer.
"Some are going to say the government of Canada has abandoned their stated priorities of creating jobs and growth and lasting prosperity of resource development," he said following the announcement.
Bennett said he's convinced the mine will go ahead someday, but Tsilhqot'in Tribal Chairman Joe Alphonse, whose area nations vehemently fought the mine, predicted the project is dead.
Karina Briño, president and CEO of the Mining Association of BC, said the project represented a generational opportunity for local residents, including First Nations, but the decision affect's Canada's reputation as a safe jurisdiction in which to invest.
"As the largest private-sector employer of First Nations in B.C., mining represents significant potential for aboriginal youth in the Cariboo-Chicotin, offering high quality jobs close to home for Williams Lake and surround communities," said Briño in a news release.
"It is a missed opportunity for the people and province of B.C."
Williams Lake Mayor Kerry Cook said her community is resilient, but people were still upset.
"There's shock, there's anger, there's frustration, there's disillusionment with the decision," she said. "We need to find a way to move forward."
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