Plans for a massive chromite mine in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire could be delayed up to a year and a half by Matawa First Nation’s judicial review of the project’s environmental assessment (EA), Matawa’s lawyer has warned.
Judith Rae, a lawyer with Toronto-based law firm Olthuis Kleer Townshend, was in Thunder Bay last week meeting with Matawa chiefs on the judicial review, which Matawa filed Nov. 7.
Rae told Wawatay News that while Matawa’s judicial review does not put the existing EA on hold, it could result in Cliffs Resources and the provincial and federal governments having to redo the entire assessment if the federal judge rules in favour of Matawa.
Rae said the project’s proponent and government officials could avoid that delay by agreeing to start a full joint review panel (JRP) right away.
“We expect the judge to agree with Matawa’s position, but that may take anywhere from eight to 18 months for the decision,” Rae said. “The hope is that we start the right process as soon as possible. That is why Matawa is reaching out to (Cliffs Resources), to Canada and Ontario saying let’s not waste all this time and money, we can start the right process anytime.”
Currently the Cliffs EA is classified a “comprehensive study.” Under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) the federal environment minister can at any time refer the EA to a review panel. If the federal and Ontario governments agree to work together on the review panel, it becomes a JRP.
One of the major benefits of a JRP for Matawa First Nations is that the board of experts conducting the assessment would be jointly appointed, including an appointment by Matawa. Rae explained that under Matawa’s proposal, the federal government, Ontario government and Matawa First Nations would each appoint one panel member to the three member panel.
Rae also noted that a comprehensive study is “quite narrow” in its scope, with “strict, short timelines.” The JRP is a much more flexible and comprehensive process, she said.
A JRP would involve oral hearings in communities, unlike the comprehensive study which requires written submissions.
“As the comprehensive study process is engaged through written submissions, it is largely inaccessible to … the significant number of Matawa First Nations members who do not speak, read or write in English or French,” states Matawa’s legal notice.
The notice also points to how Matawa chiefs have repeatedly asked for a JRP since May 2011 when the Cliffs project description was first released.
Matawa’s call for a JRP on the Cliffs mine was supported publicly by a number of Ontario environmental groups last week.
Mining Watch Canada, ECOJustice, The Wildlife Conservation Society and CPAWS Wildlands League have all endorsed Matawa’s position, stating they believe Matawa is correct in calling for a JRP and that a JRP would better suit the needs of local communities and the public.
“It’s a massive project with massive implications,” said Ramsay Hart of Mining Watch.
Matawa also has the support of Nishnawbe Aski Nation and the communities of the James Bay coast downstream of the Ring of Fire.
Joint Review Panel examples:
Voisey’s Bay Nickel Mine
Often cited as the best example of a working partnership on a JRP, the Voisey’s Bay Nickel Mine, located on Labrador’s north coast, ended up going forward after extensive negotiations with Aboriginal people living in the area.
Nickel was first discovered in the area in 1993. At the time both the Labrador Inuit Association and the Innu Nation were engaged in land claim negotiations with the federal government; both groups claimed part of the Voisey’s Bay deposit area as their traditional lands.
Eventually an independent panel was appointed jointly by the two Aboriginal groups, the federal and provincial government to analyse the project and make recommendations on how to proceed if it should go forward.
The JRP in the Voisey’s Bay example ended up approving the project, but on the condition that impact benefit agreements (IBA) were in place between the Aboriginal groups and the company. Those IBAs were eventually signed and the project proceeded.
Mackenzie Valley Pipeline
Vilified by industry groups for the length of time it took to complete, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline JRP is often blamed for causing the 1,200-kilometre pipeline project to be put on hold.
The federally appointed panel spent five years examining the $16-billion project that would bring natural gas from the Arctic Ocean to existing pipelines in Alberta.
When it finally finished its review in 2009, it issued 176 recommendations to the federal and Northwest Territories governments.
The governments later accepted only 10 of the JRP’s recommendations, and the companies behind the pipeline, including the lead company Imperial Oil, put the project on hold because natural gas prices had decreased so much during the JRP process.
Marathon’s Platinum and Copper mine
A proposed platinum and copper open pit mine to be located 10 kilometres north of Marathon was referred to a JRP by former federal environment minister Jim Prentice in October 2010.
Compared to the Cliffs chromite mine, the Marathon mine is slightly larger in scope but with a smaller deposit of mineral.
For example, the Marathon mine expects to produce 22,000 tonnes per day over an 11-year lifespan, while the Cliffs project is expected to produce 6,000 to 12,000 tonnes of ore per day for 30 years.
The Marathon project involves building seven kilometres of power lines to connect to the existing grid, while the Cliffs project proposes to build an extensive all weather road and diesel generation power station.
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