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Environment, culture obstacles to mine development.

The continuing hearings into the proposed BHP diamond mine in the central Northwest Territories threaten to separate the parties who must agree to give the mine a go-ahead. Environmentalists, local business boosters, mine proponents and the region's First Nations all bring differing expectations to the Federal Environmental Assessment Review Panel. Only time will tell whether they can reach some kind of agreement.

"We're going to have to get our land claims settled," said Lutsel K'e Chief Antoine Michel in 1994. His statement was echoed during community meetings last month by a frustrated Yellowknives Dene Chief Jonas Sangris, who told the BHP Diamonds proponents that Ottawa must deal with Aboriginal concerns fairly and fast.

"It has to be understood that the Dogribs are the owners of this land and have the inherent right to govern the land," said Violet Camsell-Blondin of Rae-Edzo. "We want our negotiations completed with Canada before mining development commences."

"It's my understanding that land claims have not delayed development in Canada," said Karen Azinger, manager of external affairs for BHP Diamonds Inc. The company, a subsidiary of BHP Minerals, which is in turn owned by Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited of Australia, wants to begin fullscale mine development this summer and holds that land claims in the area are a matter to be settled between the First Nations and the Government of Canada.

"Since [the diamonds were discovered], every company in Canada has claimed 90 per cent of [our] land," said Camsell-Blondin.

Diamonds were discovered in Kimberlite pipes in the Lac de Gras area around 1990. BHP proposes to drain and excavate five lakes north of Lac de Gras to get at the gems and fill in another seven. The environmental assessment is concerned with the effects of these operations, specifically addressing the water, wildlife and socio-economic impacts as set out in BHP's impact statement and the counterarguments of the other participants.

"We've done extensive base-line work," said Azinger. "This process is the highest level of environmental review in Canada. It is a very public, very open process. Even with approval, there will be a two-year development time, and we hope to solve the problems with the project while we are building."

"In our view, BHP has done a very poor job of their estimates of environmental impact," countered Larry A. Reynolds, staff counsel for the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, an environmentalist group based in Vancouver. "You can't put together base-line data in only two seasons. We have brought in 10 experts in various fields and they have all been disappointed with the base-line information provided by BHP."

A major impact is anticipated on the Bathurst caribou herd, which migrates past the site twice each year. The caribou are a major and traditional food source for all the First Nations and Inuit in the central NWT.

"We're of the view that the caribou issue simply has not been adequately addressed by BHP," Reynolds said. "This [review] process is simply not designed to look into a process such as this in depth." The concerns about impact on wildlife are shared by Aboriginal people.

"We can eat meat, but we cannot eat the diamonds," said Alice Zoe of Rae Lakes. "My brothers still trap, and I don't want them to lose their work on the land."

BHP maintains that the project will have limited environmental and cultural impact, and that the economic benefits of the project will far outweigh any problems.

"With any mining operation, there will be pollution," said Azinger. "It's inevitable, but in this case it will be localized and we can reclaim the land relatively quickly after production at the site is completed. By far the greatest impact will be socio-economic, and that will largely be positive."

Business enthusiasts in Yellowknife and the other communities point to the huge employment to come from the $750-million project, and the spin-off benefits which will come with that kind of money. In places where unemployment sometimes reaches 80 per cent, and under-employment is practically universal, they say that the benefits far outweight the costs.

"The mine will reduce unemployment in the N.W.T. by three per cent," Azinger claimed. "It will mean even more in the Aboriginal communities, where we will see a 25 per cent drop in unemployment.

"Right now," she continued, "we have more than 2,000 job applications on file, but pending the outcome of these hearings, we're on a care-and-maintenance staffing level."

Azinger said that the panel will take four months to reach a conclusion following the Feb. 23 conclusion to the hearings, and their report will then go to Ottawa for cabinet approval, which can come no earlier than mid-summer. That's too early for Reynolds, who sees the BHP mine as the thin end of a wedge of five or six more mines to be built over the next two decades.

"We're especially concerned because this is the first public environmental review of a mine in the Northwest Territories," he said. "This is precedent-setting, and the precedent has to be a good one."
COPYRIGHT 1996 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:R. John Hayes
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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