The legacy of an open-pit mine
Mining Energy Minister says new project will create jobs, but environmentalists debate the benefits
Tuesday September 17, 2013
FREDERICTON - Craig Leonard says the Sisson Brook mine will create much-needed jobs, but an environmental expert argues the extra employment will come at a heavy price.
Leonard, the province's minister of energy and mines, toured the Diavik diamond mine near Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories last month, where he says he was impressed by the environmental standards he saw in place.
Sisson Brook, Northcliff Resources Limited's proposed open pit mine about 60 kilometres northwest of Fredericton, will likely have similar environmental protection measures, he says. That's good enough for the Tory minister if the tungsten and molybdenum mine creates what the company has promised - 200 to 300 high-paying jobs over a 27-year lifespan, in an area where employment prospects are grim.
"All you have to do is look at the environmental impact assessment filed by the company," Leonard said in an interview. "It's hundreds of pages and very well constructed and environmentally progressive. Going through the document, I'm very impressed with the level of work and the level of protection there will be for the environment." Exploration of the site is complete and Northcliff is trying to get permitting, having already filed its environmental impact assessment. If it clears the environmental regulations, it will try to raise about $580 million to start production, most likely by the end of 2014.
Leonard insists worries that have been raised about the development's high cost and the mine possibly needing government funding are unfounded. The provincial government only has a fund available to junior companies doing preliminary work, worth about $1 million a year. As for infrastructure, Leonard said mining companies were attracted to New Brunswick because it's already in place, thanks to thousands of logging roads and access to electricity, among other amenities.
"In New Brunswick, you can drive right up to your claim and do your work," he said.
But at least one expert questions whether the company has put forward strong enough measures - and enough cash - to protect the environment over the long term.
Allen Curry, the director of the Canadian Rivers Institute at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, is one of several groups reviewing the company's environmental impact assessment filing.
He cautions that it's a highly technical document that interested parties must carefully consider before the Oct. 14 deadline. Submissions will be examined by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency in Halifax.
Several years ago, the company that first took an interest in Sisson Brook, Geodex Minerals, approached the institute and other key groups in the area - the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the Nashwaak River Watershed Association, First Nations, among others - to ask if they'd be part of its review process for the mine.
"We told them, if you want to build a world-class mine, the best mine the world has ever seen, we'll support you all the way," Curry said. "What they eventually came up with falls well short of that." At repeated steps during technical reviews, Curry said he and others told Northcliff, which took over the file, why its plans were not acceptable and what it would have to do to meet high enough environmental standards, including a reserve fund with some cleanup cash.
"In the end, they chose the minimum standards to achieve a successful application." At the heart of the issue is Northcliff's plan to build two water bodies that will be leftover after the mine is depleted: a tailings pond that's six square kilometres wide, plus the old, open pit, brimming with water full of metals and other chemicals associated with mine processing.
"They'd have a treatment plant during the mine's operation but they haven't talked about the legacy of the project. What happens to the water once the company leaves?" The fear is the toxic waste could eventually escape the tailing pond and pit, polluting the Napadogan sub-watershed and Nashwaak River systems, which eventually drain into the St. John River at Fredericton.
Curry said Northcliff would only hit the minimum Canadian standards required by law, a big disappointment to environmental groups.
"There's no doubt the standards we had set them would have cost them a lot of money. But we work with a lot of industry across Canada and around the world that are demonstrating you can meet and exceed environmental standards and still be profitable. We told this company from the beginning we fully support the development of natural resources, we just want them to be a world-class operation, one that will take care of New Brunswick over the long term."