Elsipogtog – The first-term Liberal government of Brian Gallant seems to be rushing to approve the Sisson mine in central New Brunswick with neither a full cost-benefit analysis nor an adequate study of the project’s long-term closure and pollution costs.
With a July 17 deadline for public comment on the project looming, many people, including those gathered at a June 10 meeting in Elsipogtog, are crying foul about a consultation process that seems little more than a mere formality.
There have been two reviews by independent scientists identifying major flaws and glaring omissions in the environmental impact analysis prepared by Northcliff Resources Ltd. for its proposed Sisson Mine 60 kilometres northwest of Fredericton. These damning reviews have so far failed to dampen Liberal ardor for the project. The open-pit tungsten and molybdenum mine will occupy about 1,250 hectares, or about 3,100 acres, just upstream from the Village of Stanley.
What is known is that New Brunswick taxpayers will be forever on the hook for pollution management costs associated with one of the world’s biggest permanent tailings ponds after the Sisson mine closes. The long-term storage of toxic wastes and water from the mine after its closure will create a permanent ‘tailings lake’ more than 200 feet deep and six kilometres long.
A 2012 review of the Sisson Mine by independent scientists commissioned by the Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB) noted that “the failure of the Sisson Brook tailings dam could release millions of tonnes of tailings and millions of cubic metres of supernatant water into the ecologically valuable Nashwaak watershed.” Astonishingly, despite the fact that a tailings dam failure poses Sisson’s most serious threat to the environment, Northcliff chose not to assess the impact of such a failure in its study of the mine.
Approving construction of the Sisson Mine without a full cost-benefit analysis exposes New Brunswick taxpayers to further risk.
The CCNB’s review concludes that “without a cost-benefit analysis we don’t have an accurate picture of the economic benefits, if any, of the Sisson Project.” The study notes that large open-pit mining operations like Sisson “dig up acid generating and metal leaching rock, emit contaminated dust, destroy the headwaters of clean and ecologically important rivers, fragment terrestrial landscapes, and have massive tailings ponds and dams, which cause harm to the environment.”
Damage to the environment would, obviously, also affect communities located near the Sisson Mine. Using work by University of New Brunswick Economics Professor Dr. Rob Moir, the CCNB study noted that without an economic cost-benefit analysis, “the public and decision-makers cannot make an informed decision about whether the economic benefits of the (Sisson Brook) project justify the damage it will cause to the environment.”
Adding to the questions surrounding the mine is the fact that “the true closure costs of the Sisson Project are not known.”
Of particular concern at the June meeting in Elsipogtog was the fact that Northcliff’s mine would carve more than 12 square kilometres of land out of traditional Wolastoq (Maliseet) territory at the headwaters of the Nashwaak River.
Dr. Shawn Dalton is the Science Officer for the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs in New Brunswick (AFNCNB). She told the Elsipogtog meeting that the AFNCNB arranged for 15 independent scientists to assess Northcliff’s proposal for the Sisson mine.
In summarizing that assessment of the Sisson mine, Dr. Dalton said Northcliff’s data was notable for “an absence of adequate baseline data [and] … flawed assessments of the mine’s potential impact.” She was harshly critical of Northcliff’s EIA for its failure to “meaningfully assess” the concerns of Aboriginal peoples, and its “less than adequate programs” for monitoring and mitigating damage caused by the mine.
Dr. Dalton stressed that there was “no scientific basis whatever” for Northcliff’s startling assertion that a 12 square kilometre mine with a permanent, mega-tailings pond would have no significant effects on either wildlife or water quality in the area.
Opposition to the Sisson mine is also coming from the Elsipogtog First Nation. Kopit Lodge speaks for the Elsipogtog Band on proposals for developments like Sisson within Aboriginal territory.
Two days before the Elsipogtog meeting, Kopit Lodge member Ken Francis sent a letter to Ed Doherty, New Brunswick’s Minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs. Reading this letter at the meeting, Francis expressed “sorrow and disappointment over the conduct of provincial officials with regards to consultation … about proposed industrial uses of our unceded territory.”
Francis blasted Doherty for the consistent refusal of provincial decision-makers to meet with the people affected by their decisions. “We want to be talking with people who make decisions,” his letter states.
“Your [Liberal] government is not, and will not be, any different then the previous [Conservative] one,” Francis’ letter states. He says the Gallant government is still following “the toothless and invalid ‘duty to consult’ policy” first articulated by the Alward Conservatives in 2011.
Without the free, prior and informed consent of affected Aboriginal people, as required by law, Sisson also has the potential to create long-term legal headaches for the Province of New Brunswick. In 2013, after the police attacked a protest camp in Rexton, Amnesty International, in an open letter to then Premier Alward, was highly critical of his Conservative government for its failure to obtain the free, prior and informed consent required by law.
While the Sisson Mine is usually described as being built on “Crown land,” in New Brunswick, “Crown land” is a euphemism for traditional Aboriginal territories that were never given up, ceded or sold to the Crown by treaty. Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Aboriginal peoples are still the lawful owners of their lands that were never given up by treaty.
Bass River resident Ann Pohl has worked closely with Kopit Lodge since its inception. She took the Gallant government to task for its “lack of diligence” in gathering critical information not provided by Northcliff about the mine.
Noting the inherent conflict of interest in having corporations do their own environmental impact assessments, Pohl likened the “charade” passed off as consultations on shale gas under the previous Conservative government to what the new Liberal government is doing with the Sisson Mine project.
At the June 10 Elsipogtog meeting, area residents could talk to, but not with, a four-person panel sent out by the provincial government to listen. That panel has no authority to speak for the government, no authority to answer questions about the Sisson project, and no authority to make any recommendations.
“You guys are not decision-makers, and the government can ignore everything you say,” Pohl told the panel. “Meaningful consultations must allow the people affected by such projects to engage with decision-makers.”
She noted that “there is no good closure plan for Sisson, and that New Brunswickers will be locked into expenses in perpetuity looking after the mess left behind from the mine.”
The lack of an adequate closure plan for the Sisson mine was also noted by the CCNB’s 2012 review of the mine proposal. “Without an understanding of the long term future environmental, social, and economic costs of the Sisson Project, we cannot make a fair determination of whether the project is sustainable,” the CCNB report states.
The information needed for a mine closure plan, but missing in Northcliff’s data, is an accurate description of how much contaminated water will have to be managed after closure, and for how long that contaminated water will have to be managed. Nor is there any actual plan for a water treatment plant in the EIA report
As with the Conservative government’s handling of shale gas, the Liberal government’s decision-makers are also refusing to meet with people affected by the Sisson Mine, including Aboriginal peoples who have a legal claim to the land.
Dallas McQuarrie is a Kent County-based news writer for the NB Media Co-op and a former journalist with CBC.