Fort Nelson First Nation feels 'vindicated' by frac sand ruling

While not pleased with a British Columbia Supreme Court decision that said a frac sand mine proposed for northeast B.C. could not proceed without an environmental assessment, the project proponent is not planning to throw in the towel yet.

“We’re obviously disappointed by the judge’s decision and are examining our appeal options in that respect,” Cliff LaPrairie, president of Canadian Silica Industries (CSI) Inc., told the Bulletin late yesterday. “Ultimately, we respect what the courts have to say, and our plan is to follow all necessary steps with regulators and local First Nations to continue advancement of the project.”

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His comments came just a week after the B.C. court ordered the province’s Environmental Assessment Office, which earlier said the Komie North Mine needed no such assessment, to review the matter, ensuring the province complies with B.C. environmental laws and common-law duties to consult and accommodate First Nations, in particular the Fort Nelson First Nation (FNFN), which would be most affected by the project.

“We believe the project [would] provide significant benefits for British Columbia, the Fort Nelson First Nation and the community of Fort Nelson as well,” LaPrairie added. “We’ll continue to work within established regulatory frameworks and in a positive manner with the Fort Nelson First Nation on advancing the project in a sustainable manner.”

For its part, the FNFN also got wind of last week’s court decision, although its reaction contrasted with the developer’s. “The [decision] has given us a great deal of hope,” said Kathi Dickie, FNFN Band Councillor, who also spoke on behalf of FNFN Chief Liz Logan, who was not available.

At the same time, “it’s unfortunate that we have to use the court system to have the right thing done,” Dickie said, calling the ruling a “vindication” of what the band has said all along, in terms of how such projects should be evaluated. “The province has a duty to consult and they failed to consult with us in a meaningful way,” she said.

According to Dickie, the band first learned of the proposed Komie North Mine proposal in August 2010, shortly after the province learned of it. Later, as project files began appearing, “we saw that this huge project in our traditional territory was being divided up into little pieces, [none] of which was big enough to trigger an environmental assessment].”

“Our concern was that you can’t just look at these little pieces,” she added. “You have to look at the project in its entirety.” Despite the court action the band has taken against the proposed mine development, she said the FNFN is not opposed in principle to industrial development in the region.

“We are not against development, but we want sustainable, responsible development,” she said, noting a number of the band’s residents make a living in northeast B.C.’s natural gas industry.

One reason the mine seems suited to the area is the strong future that many in the industry foresee for shale gas in northeast B.C., which would need a steady supply of sand to develop local resources. On that score, Dickie believes the recent industry downturn might prove a blessing, since it has given the band some needed “breathing room.”

Still, when asked if the band would support development of the Komie North Mine if an environmental assessment were properly done, Dickie held back.

“It all depends on the findings of the environmental assessment,” she said. “Because [the proposed mine] is in an area of our territory where people still live, hunt and trap, … it’s premature to make a decision that we support the project … until we actually do the environmental assessment in its entirety.”

The Fort Nelson First Nation lies about seven kilometres south of the town of Fort Nelson, B.C., at Mile 293-295 on the Alaska Highway.

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