VICTORIA — The B.C. Liberals have decided not to challenge a court judgment that found two cabinet ministers and a senior official guilty of procedural unfairness in rejecting a proposed $2.5-billion mining project at Morrison Lake northeast of Smithers.
“We’re not going to appeal,” Mines Minister Bill Bennett said in an interview Tuesday, pretty much conceding that the court’s criticism of the government conduct was correct.
The decision means that Pacific Booker Minerals, would-be developer of the open-pit copper, gold and molybdenum mine, will finally have a chance to defend its proposal against last-minute objections that led to it being denied an environmental approval certificate back in September 2012.
Those included impact on sockeye salmon in Morrison Lake, part of the Skeena River headwaters, and opposition from local First Nations. The public company, whose shares trade on the TSX Venture exchange, will also be making its pitch to a different ministerial lineup than the one that turned it down 18 months ago.
Then mines minister Rich Coleman and environment minister Terry Lake have been replaced by Mary Polak and Bennett, respectively.
“We’ll see what they say,” said Bennett, hastening to add that the opportunity for the company to make its case does not necessarily mean the government will reverse its earlier conclusion that the project was too risky in environmental terms.
Still, the Liberal decision to throw in the towel represents a significant victory for Pacific Booker over a government that likes to style itself as friendly to mining development in B.C.
The company spent 10 years and an estimated $10 million jumping through regulatory hoops in pursuit of an environmental approval certificate.
Persistence paid off in late summer 2012 when a government-commissioned technical report acknowledged that Pacific Booker had identified, assessed and met the main challenges associated with the environmental approval process.
“Practical means have been identified to prevent or reduce any potential negative environmental, social, economic, heritage or health impacts of the project such that no direct or indirect significant adverse effect is predicted or expected,” said the report.
Those expectations were explicitly predicated on the successful implementation of some 32 mitigation measures and conditions, also set out in the technical report. Many were onerous. But presuming the company was prepared to meet them, the project appeared to be in line for approval.
The shocker came a little over a month later, when the company learned that despite the relatively favourable technical report, no approval certificate would be issued for the Morrison mine.
The cabinet, acting on advice contained in a separate report from the executive director for environmental assessment Derek Sturko, had concluded there was too much risk associated with the project.
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