Posted on January 13, 2010 (updated: January 13, 2010)

Court Decides No Environment Assessment Required

A northern conservation group and local First Nations are not pleased with the recent decision by the NWT Supreme Court. The decision will exempt the re-construction of a winter road located upstream from Nahanni National Park Reserve and World Heritage Site from an environmental assessment. The decision was primarily based on the precedent set by a grandfathering decision made by the NWT Court of Appeals on the Cantung mine court case. Essentially, the legislation exempts projects (or undertakings) from an environmental assessment that were issued permits or licences before June 22, 1984.

The Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board, the regulatory authority in the region, had ruled that the road proposal must undergo an environmental assessment. Canadian Zinc challenged this saying that their road proposal should be exempt from a full environmental review, based on the fact the historical route was permitted by previous owners prior to June 22, 1984. CPAWS and the Dehcho First Nations, represented by the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, intervened in the judicial review supporting the Board’s decision that an environmental assessment should be conducted.

“This is a small battle that has been won by the company but we know that what they really need is an all weather road to make the mine operable. Unlike the historical winter road, there never has been all-weather road access and this critical piece of infrastructure would not be exempt from a future environmental assessment,” adds Jennifer Morin, CPAWS-NWT’s Protected Areas Planner.

‘The Dehcho First Nations support protection of the entire South Nahanni Watershed, including the area through which this road would run,” said Grand Chief Herb Norwegian. “We are working collaboratively with Parks Canada to expand Nahanni National Park Reserve to protect this area and we feel that this road and project would have significant environmental impacts in the watershed.”

“While there is a loophole in the legislation,” said Devon Page of Sierra Legal Defence Fund, “the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board’s decision was the right one because it would have protected both this unique environment and the role of First Nations in land and water management in the Mackenzie Valley. We will continue to work to ensure these principles are recognized.”

The historical winter road route cuts across the globally unique geology of the Nahanni karstlands to the Canadian Zinc mine site, north of the existing Park Reserve. This area is made up of water-soluble limestone formations and includes canyons and a network of underground caves, which according to world expert Dr. Derek Ford are “the most accentuated and important example of arctic or subarctic karst known on the planet.” The Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board can reinitiate the land use permit issuance process for the re-construction of the winter road. They also have the authority to set permit terms and conditions.

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