Review of mine proposal under fire – by Carl Clutchey (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal – October 28, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

The absence of Aboriginal representation on an expert panel reviewing a proposal for a new Marathon-area mine, combined with a perception of bias in favour of the proponent, continues to be a source of frustration and anxiety at Pic River First Nation.

The uncertainty was aired Wednesday night inside a candle-lit spiritual lodge, where federal officials were grilled about the quality and integrity of an ongoing joint provincial-federal review into Stillwater Canada’s plan for a copper and palladium mine north of Marathon’s airport.

Pic River school principal Lisa Michano-Courchene told the gathering she is troubled that the all-male panel’s two scientists and one engineer are unknown to reserve residents. The panellists are from New Brunswick, Toronto and Sudbury. Pic River’s formal request for the panel to have at least one Aboriginal representative wasn’t granted.

“We are expected to have trust in this panel, but I can’t have trust in people who have no connection to our land,” Michano-Courchene said.

Panel co-manager Colette Spagnuolo said the panellists were chosen by the provincial and federal governments.

Review panels can have up to five members, said Spagnuolo, but she couldn’t say if there would be additions to the panel reviewing Stillwater’s project.

Two weeks ago, panel members made a two-day visit to the proposed site, which included an aerial tour.
Pic River officials, who said they were not satisfied with the visit, are challenging the review process in federal court.

Stillwater, which has a good environmental track record in the U.S., wants to have the Marathon open-pit mine in production by 2015.

The project could create up to 375 permanent jobs, the company says.

Spagnuolo emphasized that the review panel operates independently from both governments while it conducts its review.

But some Pic River residents scoffed Wednesday when they learned that Stillwater ultimately foots the bill for the process.

“It sounds one-sided to me,” one resident said.

Costs aren’t yet known, but Spagnuolo said reviews generally come in at $1-$2 million.

After the completion of the review, which includes public hearings, the panel is to write a report “that will make recommendations on what the potential environmental impact (of the mine) may be, and whether it is significant,” Spagnuolo told the group.

After that, it’s up to the two governments to decide if the mine can proceed.

Before public hearings take place, Stillwater is to file an environmental impact statement, which interest groups, First Nations and individual can comment on.

The panel’s public hearings are likely to be held in Marathon and Pic River, said Spagnuolo.

The impact statement is expected to be filed in March, she said.

Pic River Chief Roy Michano, who is concerned about the tight timelines contained in the review process, said he hopes Aboriginal responses to the statement won’t be “watered down.”

Though some funding has been provided so that groups can conduct their own research before providing input, some people at Wednesday’s meeting said they felt out-matched by Stillwater, which has its own staff of mining and environmental experts.

Spagnuolo acknowledged that a lack of resources on the part of some respondents might constitute “a flaw in the process,” but encouraged people to stay involved.

“All I can say is that the panel really wants to hear from people,” she said.