In January 2005 the neighbours first learned that a company called Blue Pearl had optioned the rights to begin mining Hudson Bay Mountain, right next to Smithers, BC. The seven million tonne deposit of molybdenum ore had been explored in the 1970s butnever put into production.
In the subsequent three decades, land originally set aside for a tailings pond and processing plant had been sold off and turned into housing developments. Housing had grown up to the foot of the mountain in the area below the historical mine site. By 2005 people lived close to the old mine site, and in many cases drew their water from the slopes below it.
We felt that something needed to be done to make sure this mine was done right, and most importantly, that water quality would be protected. To that end a number of groups were formed. This initial tack, of forming more than one local group, proved to be very fruitful later on.
We formed an umbrella group for the whole Bulkley Valley called Hudson Bay Mountain Neighborhoods. One neighbourhood group was the Lake Kathlyn Protection Society, whose members took their water from Lake Kathlyn, directly below the proposed mine site. Another was the Glacier Gulch Water Group, whose members shared a communal well on a small creek flowing from the site of 1970s exploration work.
BC Environmental Assessment
In order to build a working mine, Blue Pearl had to apply to the BC Environmental Assessment Office. To support the application the company had to perform exploratory work and gather data they would need.
In order to perform the exploratory work, Blue Pearl filed a Notice of Work with the provincial Ministry of Mines. At that point, because we were concerned about the impacts of exploration work on water quality, the Ministry created a Public Liaison Committee (or PLC). The PLC provided continuous contacts with the company and helped us learn what sort of people they were and what their assumptions and intentions were.
To compile an Environmental Assessment Application takes a tremendous amount of time and money for baseline studies, engineering plans and cost analyses. Once the Application is submitted, it is very difficult to change its major components. If you want to influence the mine that a company is proposing to build, you have to get in early, you have to talk to the company, and you have to help steer their ideas before they write their Application.
The company filed its EA Application in the summer of 2008. During those three and a half years we had a number of opportunities to exert influence on the design of the Application, and, incidentally, to delay its submission.
The first opportunity was the development of the Terms of Reference (TOR), a kind of table of contents of what the Application has to include. By expressing a great deal of interest and generating public support, we were able to get the draft TOR released for public review. We commented thoroughly, and managed to get a number of areas included.
We also had the opportunity to comment on the mining company’s Baseline Studies – the data which will someday be used to determine if the mine has done damage. By commenting thoroughly on the proposed Baseline Studies and demanding more and better studies, we were able to push the company to document fully what we have now, including water quality.
Pursue the Detail
Certain strategies proved to be extremely fruitful. One was pursuing the detail. In general in British Columbia, the employees of the Ministry of Environment or Ministry of Mines are too busy and too overworked to follow a company and watchdog it effectively. But if members of the public are constantly asking questions, those regulators have a reason to pay more attention. We asked as many detailed questions as we could.
We also asked questions that set the tone for how we wanted the company to treat us. Every time we learned that an activity was going on, we asked why we had not been told in advance. The representatives of the company sent to the Public Liaison Committee were consistently optimistic and positive; essentially their message was, trust us. We never trusted them. And we often found reasons not to.
In April 2008, the company published an updated draft Application. This draft demonstrated that we had not had any influence on the design of the mine. The mine was still situated in a community watershed. It still involved 54 ore trucks a day, of 40-tonne capacity, leaving the facility at 15 minute intervals. The water treatment plant was still going to discharge into the Bulkley River. None of the suggestions about conveyor systems, railway transport, or moving the mine’s loadout facility to another part of the mountain had been accepted.
The essential problem we had with this mine was its impact on domestic water users. Moving the mine would have solved that problem, and the company consistently refused to discuss that with us.
Things really began to change when the Mayor of Smithers decided that the project was a disaster. His phrase, which we found quite useful, was “The Right Mine.” When the Application was submitted, we felt that we had to oppose it. With the Mayor now on side, we were able to secure a great deal of publicity, and it became clear that a single focus campaign was important.
We chose water as our focus for its broad appeal to the entire Bulkley Valley. The closure plan for the mine revealed that as water filled the spaces within the mountain it would pick up metals such as arsenic and selenium and then flow into the groundwater. The company applied for a discharge permit for water that was 10 times over the drinking water guideline limits.
Lots of Public Comments
Our appeal for public comments was very successful: we had 213 individual comments – some of over 100 pages. We held a forum and letter-writing workshop at the high school theatre, setting up computers and printers so that concerns raised in the forum could add to the letters to the regulators. Our web site documents some of the other materials we provided to stimulate and facilitate public comment: www.hbmn.ca. The Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) then told the company that they would need to address this “very considerable” volume of public concern.
Now we are waiting for Blue Pearl to reply to the EAO Working Group about our concerns. The Province has decided to not go to a detailed panel review for this project. Also, at the firm’s request, the time frame for the decision on this project has been delayed for an unknown length of time. They may wait until after the provincial election to start the clock ticking again – it’s their option. So the public part of the process may be completely over (we’re examining our process options). But the company’s part is ongoing and will, as far as we know, be subject only to agency scrutiny from here on in, and the eventual political decision will be made by the Ministers of Environment and of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.
There is only so much that can be done inside a policy box that is designed to give approvals no matter what, as long as conditions are added. We continue thinking outside the box and working hard to preserve the social and environmental health of our neighbourhoods.
- Develop a brilliant website and update it regularly – : it makes your group’s information accessible, and is a great recruiting and organizing tool.
- Organize townhall meetings, however quickly, as a great way of generating participation.
- Film public meetings: the footage can be used later in short videos and posted on YouTube.
- Keep all levels of government up to speed about community concerns: municipal; provincial (including MLA, ministers and premier); federal and local First Nations .
- Take breaks, but don’t give up.
- All efforts seem to pay off: even small delays in a project could lead to important unforeseen opportunities for a project to change.