Company to sue B.C. government over Morrison Lake gold mine rejection

Victoria — The Globe and Mail

A male sockeye salmon attacks another male as they make their way up a spawning river in B.C. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

The B.C. Liberal government is facing legal action over a decision to deny an environmental certificate to a proposed copper and gold mine on the shores of Morrison Lake in the province’s northern interior.

While the government is aggressively promoting a jobs strategy that relies heavily on the construction of new mines, the Ministry of Environment ruled last October that the Morrison mine proposal posed an unacceptable risk to the lake, and to Skeena River salmon.

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“The decision has hurt investment in the province, there has been a lot of confidence lost,” said Erik Tornquist, director of Pacific Booker Minerals Inc.

The mine was valued at nearly half a billion dollars, he said, and the company spent $30-million doing feasibility studies and working through the three-year-long environmental assessment process.

“They can do what they want,” Energy and Mines Minister Rich Coleman said in an interview Thursday. “I won’t comment on the file as they go to court, but I was one of the statutory officers who made that decision, and I think it was the right decision.”

Environment Minister Terry Lake refused comment, although the company’s claim is not yet filed. “There are legal proceedings under way so I would not like to comment.”

The B.C. Liberal government has touted its record as pro-resource development and has promoted a jobs strategy that is supposed to create eight new mines and expand nine existing mines by 2015. Two new major mines have come into production in the last two years.

But the decision on the Morrison mine stunned the mining industry – the Liberal government has rarely rejected a project of this kind. The environmental assessment report concluded that the mine proponent had satisfied concerns about fish habitat, water quality and first nations consultation. But in the end it found the risks outweighed the benefits.

Following the ruling, Mr. Lake said it is time for B.C. to formally adopt a new method for evaluating resource development, to clearly measure risks against benefits. “Sure, it represented a tremendous economic opportunity,” he said at the time, “but the risks couldn't be reduced to the level that people felt comfortable with."

Mr. Tornquist said the government has not responded to the company’s request for a chance to address those concerns.

It is not the first time the B.C. Liberal government has clashed with the mining sector. The government had to pay Boss Power Corp. $30-million in an out-of-court settlement in 2011 after a sudden decision to ban uranium mining. The government initially encouraged the company, but then stripped Boss Power of its rights just three days after the firm filed an exploration application in the mountains east of Kelowna.