Don't rule out Kamloops' Ajax mine just yet, expert says

While the provincial government's decision to withhold the environmental assessment certificate for the controversial mine was lauded by those opposed to the project, an expert says it might be too early to celebrate.

The years-long approval process for controversial mine may continue

The provincial government declined to issue an environmental assessment certificate to the proposed Ajax Mine, located south of Kamloops, this week. (KGHM)

Opponents of a proposed open-pit copper and gold mine near Kamloops, B.C. have lauded the province's decision to withhold an environmental assessment certificate, but an expert says it might be too early for them to celebrate.

Mining law specialist Patricia Dawn Mills, who teaches at Lakehead University and the University of British Columbia's law school and consulted with the First Nations who opposed the mine, says she thinks the decision was the right one, but added the project is far from over. 

"We're not finished with [the Ajax mine]. This is a blip on the way," Mills said.

And it's been a long way indeed.

Controversial start

The 1,700-hectare open-pit mine has been a beacon for controversy ever since it was floated as an idea in 2006, when KGHM International, a subsidiary of Polish company KGHM Polska Miedźthat, began pushing the $1.3-billion project forward.

At the time, many nearby residents voiced concerns about the mine's proximity to a dozen schools, a hospital and four seniors' homes. Residents were worried about the mine's environmental impact on the lake and water catchment levels.

The proposed site was also near Jacko Lake, which holds spiritual and cultural value for the Stk'emlúpsemc te Secwépemc First Nation.

The company countered it would produce 500 full-time jobs once running and another 1,800 jobs during construction.

But earlier this week, the province said it won't issue an environmental assessment certificate for the proposed mine, saying it found too many negative impacts for the proposal in areas such as air quality and local ecosystems

Years-long process

The project spent years under bureaucratic review before this week's decision. 

For example, Mills say the province spent three to four years just deciding how the mine should be classified in the review and who would review it.

In the meantime, the Stk'emlúpsemc te Secwépemc First Nations conducted their own environmental review and rejected the proposal and Kamloops city council voted to oppose the mine

Andrew Gage, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, says projects of this magnitude — and controversy — often take a long time to review.

"At the same time, it raised questions about why it took so long and why that community had to go through so much before the government put the brakes on what was really an ill-conceived project," Gage said.

Industry was also waiting for a decision.

Brian Cox, from the B.C. Mining Association, says while he believed the regulatory process in B.C. was "robust," he was also concerned the lengthy approval  process could affect investors. 

"If you're looking to come here and deploy capital in British Columbia and you look at a project like this and its millions and millions of dollars in capital ... they need to be shown that they can get to a decision point in a timely manner," Cox said.

More to come?

And a final decision might not come any time soon.

While the provincial government decided not to issue an environmental assessment certificate this week, the project is now before the federal government, which could issue its own certificate and then send it back to the province for review.

Mills says the company is also within its rights to challenge the provincial decision through a a judicial review.

"[KGHM] has already brought up in the past if the petition doesn't go their way, they'll bring out legal tools," Mills said.

"Believe me it's not over."

Cox says industry is still reviewing the decision.

KGHM hasn't specifically commented about its next steps, although it thanked its staff for its professionalism and the community for its patience.