Federal Court dismissal of Taseko’s lawsuit a victory for the Tsilhqot’in, environment, and future of environmental assessments

It has been a years-long saga that has seen not one, but two iterations of a proposal to build an open-pit mine on Tsilhqot’in territory in central B.C.

Now, the Federal Court has ruled that a federal review panel was right to conclude that Taseko Mines Ltd.’s bid to build the “New Prosperity Mine” would have significant adverse effects on the area.

In November 2010, Canada’s former Environment Minister rejected Taseko’s initial proposal to build “Prosperity Mine,” citing concerns about the effects the project would have on the environment and the Tsilhqot’in people.

Undeterred, Taseko came up with a second proposal for a “New Prosperity Mine,” and asked the Canadian Environment Assessment Agency to review it.

The review panel found that, if built, the New Prosperity Mine would have significant adverse effects on water quality in Tsilhqot’in territory. This led the Ministry of Environment to reject the proposal in 2014.

In response, Taseko filed a lawsuit challenging the review panel’s conclusion.

On Tuesday, Dec. 5, the Federal Court dismissed this lawsuit — a decision that we, along with our clients MiningWatch Canada, are applauding.

Intervening on behalf of MiningWatch Canada

We intervened in this case on behalf of MiningWatch Canada to support the panel’s findings because we anticipated that the outcome could set an important legal precedent. And it turns out that we were right.

The Court ultimately found that the review panel was right to use a precautionary approach when it concluded that the mine would have harmful effects on lakes in the area, including Fish Lake, which is also known as Teztan Biny in the Tsilhqot’in language.

The judgment also included a powerful statement that was critical of Taseko’s claims that the company would use “adaptive management” to address environmental risks at a later time, rather than explaining up front how it would mitigate these threats.

“Acceptance of vague adaptive management schemes in circumstances such as these would, in my view, tend to call into question the value of the entire review panel process,” The judgment said. “If all such decisions could be left to a later stage, then the review panel process would simply be for the sake of appearances.”

Victory for the Tsilhqot’in, the environment, and the future of environmental assessments

The Court’s decision is a victory on three fronts.

A landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2014 granted the Tsilhqot’in Nation aboriginal title to nearly 2,000 square kilometres of land in British Columbia. This latest Federal Court decision affirms the Tsilhqot’in peoples’ rights over their traditional lands, including Fish Lake (Teztan Biny), which is considered sacred in their culture.

The Federal Court ruling is also a big win for the environment. Part of the reason we opposed Taseko’s attempt to build the original Prosperity Mine was that the company intended to drain Fish Lake and turn part of it into a tailings pond. The Mount Polley disaster is a prime example of how a tailings pond spill can have disastrous effects on the environment and local communities.

When Taseko asked the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to review the New Prosperity Mine proposal, our fears for the environment were renewed. Fortunately, the government again rejected the project, basing this decision on the panel’s conclusion that the proposal would have several serious effects on the environment and on the Tsilhqot’in people, and that some of these effects could not be mitigated. The Federal Court affirmed this conclusion in its ruling on Tuesday

Lastly, this is a victory for the future of environmental assessments.

As we have said before, a precautionary approach to these assessments helps ensure that projects can only proceed when we understand the risks they may pose. No project should get a green light unless the company behind it can prove that it can safely manage all serious risks. The safety of communities and the environment depend on it.

Prosperity Mine 3.0?

Throughout our fight against the original and new Prosperity Mines, we have depended on supporters like you to help keep us at the forefront of these issues.

We know that people across the country — whether they live directly in the path of these projects, are just downstream, or are provinces away — understand the risks these projects pose. That is why we are committed to ensuring that major projects, from pipelines to open-pit mines, have community consent and are subject rigorous environmental reviews.

We would hope that by now Taseko has learned its lesson. But if a third Prosperity Mine proposal is put on the table – or if Taseko tries to appeal the Federal Court’s judgment – we we will be ready to ensure that it and any future projects respect local communities and the environment, and abide by the precautionary principle – a position that the Federal Court has rightfully reinforced.