Yea or nay: the buck stops at Lake's desk

The Ajax File: All That Glitters - Part 5 of 5

The approval process for any major development in B.C. typically takes years, along with millions of dollars spending on reports from engineers, scientists and professional consultants.

But at the end of the line is a pen held by Environment Minister Terry Lake.

The rookie MLA - elevated to the powerful position of Minister of Environment by B.C.'s new premier Christy Clark - shares the decision-making power along with Energy and Mines Minister Rich Coleman and the federal Minister of Environment, Peter Kent, to say yes or no to Ajax Mine.

That puts Lake in a position where he is wary about his actions and words around the mine proposal.

"I've had to step back," Lake said in an interview. "I have to be careful of my comments."

The proposed mine is beside Lake's constituency, making him a target for opponents who expect him to act on their concerns. Those roles, as both public representative and decision-maker, place him in a difficult position at times.

When Premier Clark was in Kamloops for a brief visit in July, including a stop at the Noble Pig to meet with local Liberals, "three people stood up specifically to grill me on it," Lake said.

"I had to say I can't really discuss it other than to say, 'Here's what the process is.'"

But critics say the Liberal government is a yes-man to big industry, noting the province almost never turns down development recommended for approval by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office.

"All of us have witnessed a slow withering away of support for environmental assessment over the last 10 years," said Susan Howatt, managing director of environmental organization Sierra Club of B.C.

"We're seeing funding cuts at the Ministry of Environment almost every yearâ The capacity to do environmental assessments has been weakened for some time."

Sierra Legal is one of a number of groups applying to access $50,000 in funding made available by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. The agency offers the funding to watchdog groups to take an independent look at projects.

Consultants and engineers are otherwise hired by KGHM-Abacus.

And in the arsenal of exploration and mining companies, is B.C.'s powerful Mines Act, which companies can use to gain access to private property, with or without permission from owners. The act trumps any municipal powers, giving the City of Kamloops and the Thompson-Nicola Regional District little or no say.

The approval process for Ajax Mine involves both the Canadian agency and the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, working in a harmonized process.

While bureaucrats from Ottawa and Victoria are working together on a joint review, under policy agreed to by both sides in 2004, each government will render its own decision based on the same information.

In the case of the Prosperity Mine proposed for the Chilcotin, the province said yes, while the federal government turned it down -meaning the project could not go ahead.

Howatt called it "a tale of two processes" that highlights flaws in B.C.'s environmental review.

The province may classify Sierra Legal as reflexively anti-B.C. Liberal, but more serious criticism has recently emerged from an unimpeachable source.

B.C.'s auditor-general released a report last month that found serious flaws in what happens after projects are approved by the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office. It found projects are not adequately monitored and measured for compliance to standards set out by the environmental assessment office.

Those failures, Howatt said, are a result of continuing cuts to staff by the B.C. Liberals.

"They don't have the workforce capacity to follow it."

Jim Excell, president and CEO of Abacus Mining and Exploration Corp., said legal requirements have forced the company to stand back and let the government agencies oversee the first of two public input processes.

"We've been quiet for a while," he acknowledged.

"It's inappropriate to get into a debate in a public period. That's over."

And while B.C.'s Mines Act gives firms powerful tools to get at deposits, they operate under a mountain of regulations, both federal and provincial.

Lake said health spending in B.C. continues to consume a large share of the provincial budget, which constrains budgets of the so-called dirt ministries of forestry, mines and environment. But as commodity prices rise, so have the number of applications to the environmental assessment office.

"In the face of more applications, we haven't seen an increase in that budget," he acknowledged. "We're looking at that and looking at ways to assist them with resources."

And countering critics who say the assessment office and government won't say no, Lake said that position ignores the fact many projects are forced to withdraw because they can't meet standards set by government at an economically feasible cost.

"With these conditions, some never go forward."

While the environment minister has pledged to step back from the process for which he must ultimately judge, he said KGHM-Abacus doesn't have to look for the wrong example.

While Aboriginal Cogeneration Corp. received environmental approval for its plans to burn railway ties in Kamloops, extreme opposition led by a small number of local people ultimately killed the project due to political pressure.

"The company should go in early and develop relationships," Lake said. "The best example (of not doing so) is Aboriginal Cogeneration."

KGHM-Ajax expects to open its downtown office this month, which will seek to improve community relations and provide information to interested residents.

"We want to make sure community members believe we're listening, they're fully involved and they're confident in our business practices." Excell said.

As an example, he said consultants working for the company sat down recently with City representatives to discuss groundwater concerns in Aberdeen, which experienced serious problems more than a decade ago.

He expects the company to work to inform residents about how the joint venture will deal with everything from dust to concerns over blasting nose and groundwater.

"We're back."

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