Latest Sisson Mine approval leaves First Nations, conservation groups uneasy
Tailings pond for proposed mine north of Fredericton requires damming two fish-bearing brooks
For two years, Nick Polchies of Woodstock First Nation and his dog Arizona have been waking up in the woods, on land that someday — and for centuries to come — could be a toxic tailings pond.
Polchies initially went to the site, about 80 kilometres northwest of Fredericton, to help the Wolastoqi grandmothers already camping out there to protest the proposed Sisson Mine.
Northcliff Resources Ltd., a Vancouver-based company, says its open-pit tungsten and molybdenum mine would create 500 jobs during construction and 300 jobs for the 27 years it is expected to operate.
The $579-million mine near the community of Napadogan would also have a storage pond for toxic waste that would last for many years after the mine is abandoned. The waste facility would require the damming of two fish-bearing brooks.
Polchies's resolve to fight the project only deepened when the mine and the tailings pond proposed for the unceded Wolastoqey land got approval this summer from Environment and Climate Change Canada.
"Basically, my mind kind of went to an old meme," said the frustrated Polchies. "It's like 'how many times must we teach you this lesson, old man?' Like it's not going to happen, we're not going to allow it to happen."
First Nations and environmental groups have been concerned about the mining project since it was first proposed in 2011. And despite being consulted as the proposal moved through the approval process, they still believe it's a mistake.
"It's unfortunate but the economic arguments in favour of large mining projects almost always outweigh the environmental damages that projects like the Sisson Mine will do," said Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.
The federal approval published July 10 came with amendments to the regulations covering metal and diamond mining effluent. Under the revised regulations, Bird Brook and West Branch Napadogan Brook would be lost and included in the tailings pond.
Endangered American eel and Atlantic salmon are present in both brooks, which run into the Nashwaak River, then to the St. John River, or Wolastoq.
Despite opposition from many First Nation chiefs, the New Brunswick government approved the Sisson Mine in 2015.
Felt pressure to sign
Two years later, six Wolastoqey communities — St. Mary's, Woodstock, Oromocto, Tobique, Kingsclear and Madawaska — signed an "accommodation" agreement with the province, a multi-million dollar deal giving them a share of provincial revenue generated by the mine.
The bands said their position on the mine hadn't changed but they had no choice but to sign the accommodation agreement. If they didn't sign, they'd lose a tax agreement with the province, which provides them with own-source revenue.
Archeological surveying done since the mine was proposed has uncovered artifacts near the ore body, including an 8,500-year-old spear point.
Other artifacts that were documented and sealed disappeared from the same site. A traditional longhouse has since been constructed there and has been used for ceremonies.
Two brooks to vanish
Even the federal Environment Department's own assessment of the project, produced in 2017, found the mine would have adverse effects on the environment and the Wolastoqiyik's traditional use of the land and water. But the government decided that with mitigation, the adverse effects could be justified.
Northcliff has not said when it wants to go ahead with the Sisson Mine. Tungsten is at its lowest price since 2010, while molybdenum is only slowly gaining value.
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After the recent federal approval of the mine, the Wolastoqey Nation in New Brunswick chiefs reiterated their opposition.
First Nations and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were consulted on the fish habitat compensation plan for the project needed before mine waste can be deposited in the two fish-bearing brooks.
But the chiefs said in a news release that despite being part of the engagement process, they weren't notified the two brooks would not be protected by effluent regulations.
"He pointed out a little distance and said, It's going to expand from here to here, roughly that would be about the size of that dam, it's going to be all tailings, toxic water,'" Polchies said. "And that's pretty much when I knew I had to switch places."
Marieka Chaplin, executive director of the Nashwaak Watershed Association, which has been involved in the consultation from the early stages, said there are many things about the tailings pond that are concerning.
"We're concerned about the impact the project would have on our rivers and waterways," Chaplin said. "And obviously as a grassroots watershed organization, we're just simply opposed to the destruction of fish-bearing streams because that's one of the main things that we're trying to restore and conserve."
Chaplin said her group has been a part of the consultation process but still doesn't know what the detailed financial plan is.
"We're very curious to know what it would cost to treat and store the mine's tailings, for example. We're concerned about seepage from the mine's tailings there."
It's unfortunate but the economic arguments in favour of large mining projects almost always outweigh the environmental damages that projects like the Sisson Mine will do- Lois Corbett, Conservation Council of New Brunswick
Despite the federal approval, the project is still subject to 40 legally binding conditions attached to the provincial approval.
They include collaborating with post-secondary institutions for training programs, an emergency preparedness and response program, consulting with First Nations to determine the impact on animals of importance, and a water management plan.
"The project owners can crow and say that it's a significant milestone," Corbett said of the federal approval, "but there's a whole heck of a lot more hills that have to be overcome before we'll see a shovel in the ground."
Economic argument wins
"This is a economic depressed area, so this is an easy place to do a foolio on the government and … decision-makers. And I think that we need to end that era being taken advantage of."
"It's unfortunate but the economic arguments in favour of large mining projects almost always outweigh the environmental damages that projects like the Sisson Mine will do."
Despite industry's advantage, Corbett said, First Nations and environmental groups were still able get $954,000 set aside for the fish habitat compensation plan, up from the $83,000 initially proposed.
"That got jacked up to almost a million dollars, so it is better now," she said. "But from an ecological perspective, what the compensation package is doing is actually taking down one culvert and one dam, and restoring alewife in the Nashwaak, which is an admirable goal but it is not replacing Atlantic salmon nor American eel.
"So that it's kind of a switcheroo."
"Heck of a big dam"
Corbett said that the dam that will hold back the proposed tailings pond at Sisson will be larger than the Mactaquac Dam.
The tailings storage facility will be roughly 3½ kilometres by 2½ kilometres and up to 90 metres high.
"So that's one heck of a big dam," she said.
The tailings storage facility will be built from earth and rock with a geosynthetic liner.
The Mount Polley mine disaster in 2014 was a wakeup call about the regulation of the mining industry, Corbett said.
In 2014, a tailings pond for the Mount Polley copper and gold open-pit mine in British Columbia breached and flooded toxic water and mine waste into the nearby lakes and streams. Charges have not been laid against the mining company responsible for the breach.
"We were freaking out about a dam, approved federally and provincially, that collapsed and wiped out lakes and fisheries," Corbett said.
Representatives of Northcliff Resources Ltd. and the New Brunswick Department of Environment and Local Government were contacted but would not be interviewed.
Nick Polchies is confident the protest camp at the proposed site will remain for as necessary, or when the project is called off.
"It's a fight and I refuse to stand down" Polchies says.