Ecojustice Blog – Nature Posted on September 4, 2014 (updated: March 29, 2017)

Big court win for Taku River watershed and First Nations rights in B.C.

Randy ChristensenLawyer
Golden grizzly bear
Photo © Stefania Mazzucco

Big news! A recent ruling by the B.C. Supreme Court has dealt a significant blow to a controversial mine project that poses a serious risk to one of British Columbia’s most significant, ecologically-intact watersheds.

The Taku River watershed, which is three times the size of Prince Edward Island, lies within the traditional territory of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, who rely on it support their culture, economy and community. The watershed also contains some of the richest wildlife habitat on North America’s west coast and is home to globally significant populations of large mammals like the grizzly bear, wolf, moose, and woodland caribou. The Taku River is also home to runs of all five species of Pacific salmon.

Chieftain Metals’ proposed Tulsequah Chief Mine, subject of one of Ecojustice’s longest-running legal battles, would have put all this precious wilderness at risk.

The proposed project — opposed by the Taku River Tlingit and many environmental groups — would see a new mine built on a historic mine site, which was abandoned in the 1950s, leaving a legacy of serious site contamination that continues to persist even to this day. The proposal also requires the construction of a 200-kilmetre access road, which would significantly disrupt the watershed’s delicate ecosystem and likely unleash a flood of other development once the access road is in place.

B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office approved the project in 2002, giving Chieftain until five years — plus a five-year extension — to begin construction. And although some minor permitting and exploratory activity has taken place, we believe that the project had not been substantially started before its 10-year window of opportunity expired.

Project proponents are allowed up to 10 years under B.C.’s Environment Assessment Act to “substantially start” construction of an approved project. This limitation exists to prevent projects from being built based upon an outdated environmental assessment. In other words, you cannot get approval for a project today, only to try and build it 20 or 50 years later.

That’s why earlier this year, Ecojustice lawyers appeared before the B.C. Supreme Court on behalf of the Taku River Tlingit, to argue that the decision that the mine was substantially started was flawed and had to be redone. The Taku River Tlingit also challenged the province’s failure to properly consult the First Nation in its decision-making process.

The B.C. Supreme Court ruled in our favour on both these grounds, meaning that the Minister of Environment needs to reconsider, with input from the Taku River Tlingit and looking at all the relevant evidence, whether or not the project’s environmental assessment certificate has expired.

This is the latest success story in Ecojustice’s long-running efforts, which began in the mid-1990s, to help protect the Taku River watershed and the people who depend on it.

It is critical every environmental decision — whether around new mining proposals or pipeline projects, like the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion — is made with due care and considers the people that will be most impacted by that decision.

This ruling from the B.C. Supreme Court is a step in the right direction. It protects the constitutional rights of the Taku River Tlingit and serves as a powerful reminder that requirements in environmental legislation must be taken seriously.

From a broad perspective, it sets an important precedent in light of ongoing proceedings for the New Prosperity Mine project and the Jumbo Glacier Resort, where similar issues around project start-dates and First Nations consultation are likely to arise.

This is it a big win for the Taku River Tlingit and the precious watershed they are committed to protecting and also sends a clear message that environmental decisions need to be made in consultation with, and in consideration of, First

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