Critics say Rio Tinto was wrong to lobby N.W.T. minister on Diavik water issue
Yellowknives Dene First Nation wants minister to reconsider stance on more stringent water quality rules
Did the owner of the Diavik diamond mine get special treatment from N.W.T.'s minister of environment? Some people think so.
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation and Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, say Rio Tinto was wrong to lobby Environment Minister Wally Schumann while he was mulling a recent recommendation from the Wek'eezhii Land and Water Board — and that Schumann was wrong to rule against the board's decision.
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Schumann was considering the company's request that he reject a recommendation from the board that would have imposed more stringent water quality standards in the part of Lac de Gras where Rio Tinto is building a dike for its next Diavik open pit.
The company is asking for more flexible rules as it tries to keep dike construction on schedule to allow for mining from the new open pit beginning in 2018.
Schumann ultimately sided with Rio Tinto, in what many are calling an unprecedented and worrying move for the North's regulatory system.
An unexpected move
It's the conditions under which Schumann made that call that are coming under scrutiny.
The legislation governing the process allows Schumann to disagree with a board; it just doesn't tend to happen.
"The assumption is that the minister will make recommendations based on the best advice of experts. This is what the board is for," says Ernest Betsina, the Ndilo chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.
What rankles the First Nation is that Rio Tinto wrote to Schumann after the option for further comment on the file had expired.
"There's no provision in the act for companies to directly appeal to a minister after a public hearing," says O'Reilly, who worked for the environmental watchdog group for another N.W.T. diamond mine before becoming an MLA.
That Schumann sided with the company under those circumstances is "very unusual," says O'Reilly, "and I don't think this bodes well for devolution and the authority the territorial government has assumed."
Not happy? Go see a judge, company urged
In his ruling, Schumann said the board was wrong to call for more stringent water quality rules without giving Rio Tinto a chance to weigh in on those rules.
But Betsina and O'Reilly say that if Rio Tinto was concerned about fairness, it should have asked the N.W.T. Supreme Court to conduct a judicial review of the board's decision, not turn to the minister.
"They should go in front of a judge and go publicly instead of going privately or lobbying with the minister," said Betsina. "That's unprecedented and I certainly don't agree with that."
O'Reilly says Rio Tinto should consider installing a second silt curtain at its construction site, as Dominion Diamond Corporation is planning to do when it begins building its own new dike at the Ekati mine.
Betsina says Schumann should reconsider and accept the board's recommendation.
The land and water board will meet with Rio Tinto on Monday to hear its concerns before setting out the process for deciding on water quality rules — again.
Read an open letter the YKDN wrote on the issue here: