As the end of the review process for the Ajax Project draws nears, one thing is clear -- the environmental assessment for the proposed gold-and-copper mine has been one of the most comprehensive for a mining project in B.C.'s history.
It's expected the Ajax Project file will, in a few months' time, pass from the BC Environmental Assessment Office and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to provincial and federal ministers for decision, with final decisions expected towards the end of the year.
The submission of the file to responsible ministers follows the restarting of the regulatory review process, which was suspended last year to allow Ajax and the agencies a chance to properly respond to comments, questions and concerns from the public as well as technical reviewers and First Nations, and to allow a parallel First Nations review process to continue.
The pause was expected and normal for an environmental assessment of this kind, said Ajax Project Manager Chris Wild. While some in the community have fretted over what they believe has been an overly long delay, the fact is that assessing mining projects takes time.
"This is not an easy task, preparing an environmental assessment and application for an environmental certificate," said Wild. "And without a doubt, it's not easy for reviewers to comb through such documents either."
The Ajax Project Application/EIS is more than 18,000 pages long. Since it was submitted in January 2016, supplementary materials and responses to comments and questions have been provided following consultation with the public and other reviewers. Key changes include:
o A revised Jacko Lake fish habitat and offsetting plan o Significant revisions to the Peterson Creek diversion system o Additional air quality modeling o Additional health modelling o Changes to management plans, operational plans, monitoring plans, and mitigation efforts related to many aspects of mine operations, including the tailings storage facility
"This is the way environmental assessments work," said Wild. "We proposed a plan, listened to comments and feedback, and made changes accordingly. It's made for a better mine plan -- a better mine."
Wild said this process seemed long in part because KGHM substantially changed its mine plans partway through development of the Application, requiring significant steps to be taken again in the environmental assessment process.
In May 2014, the company announced a significantly redesigned general arrangement that saw most major infrastructure moved farther from the community.
"Many technical studies needed to be re-started back at the beginning of 2014," said Wild. "We had a lot of new work to do."
Many different groups -- from a Community Advisory Group to government experts to an independent consultant hired by the City of Kamloops -- have all thoroughly and extensively reviewed the Application, asking questions and seeking clarification along the way. Parallel to the provincial and federal assessments, there has also been a First Nations environmental review, which KAM supported and willingly took part in, said Nicola Banton, the Permitting Manager for the Project.
Banton said the pausing of the regulatory clock did not delay the work of assessing the potential environmental impacts of the Ajax Project.
"While procedurally, time may be suspended, the real work of the environmental assessment process is on-going, with continued dialogue facilitated by the BC Environmental Assessment Office and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency between technical reviewers and the proponent -- all with the goal of achieving a project that meets regulatory requirements, minimizes potential adverse effects, and maximizes beneficial opportunities," she said.
The task of deciding whether to issue an environmental certificate ultimately falls on elected leaders, who will weigh the potential impacts to the environment against the Ajax Project's benefits and decide what is in the public's best interest, said Yves Lacasse, the Ajax Project's External Affairs Manager.
The environmental assessment process does not consider the benefits that flow from these kinds of mega-projects, Lacasse noted. But it would be a mistake to ignore the jobs, taxes and royalties that could be generated.
'"No one wants to see projects approved solely because of the financial stimulus they might generate," Lacasse said. "It's important -- always -- to consider the environmental impacts.
"Once that important work has been done, however, it's important to consider the benefits as well. Responsible resource development can be a major contributor to regional, provincial and federal economies.
"Projects like Ajax are valuable and contribute substantially to support personal incomes as well as the government services, programs and public infrastructure that supports our high quality of life."
Now that the suspension has been lifted, the public will be able to view all the questions, comments and Ajax's responses. All the material is being posted to the B.C. EAO's ePIC website at www.eao.gov.bc.ca.