The federal government has issued final approval for a project to construct a new all-season road to the Dehcho’s Prairie Creek Mine.

Construction of a 184-km road from the mine site to Highway 7, near the community of Nahanni Butte, received conditional approval from the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board in September 2017 – one of the last and biggest steps in the environmental assessment process.

However, the review board’s recommendation always requires ministerial sign-off before being considered final. Ottawa delayed that approval in January, saying both the federal government and mining company Canadian Zinc must conduct more consultations with affected Indigenous groups.

Advertisement. Story continues below

In a letter dated October 9, Carolyn Bennett – the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous relations – provided final approval for the access road to go ahead, on behalf of a range of federal and territorial ministers who hold jurisdiction over the project.

Writing to the review board, Bennett said ministers were providing approval after considering both the board’s findings and a subsequent series of at least 17 letters and emails from Indigenous groups.

Bennett added concerns expressed in that correspondence would be addressed by a series of measures designed to limit the road’s environmental impact; commitments already made by Canadian Zinc; and a separate agreement Canadian Zinc says it is now drafting with Indigenous groups to address issues related to environmental management.

“The responsible ministers and I believe,” Bennett wrote, “that all issues raised relating to potential adverse impacts from the proposed project on asserted or established Indigenous and/or treaty rights have been meaningfully and completely consulted on.”

Bennett pledged consultation would continue as the project now begins moving through land use permitting and water licensing, which are the regulatory stages following an approved environmental assessment.

‘Positive news’

In January, Bennett had demanded Canadian Zinc do more to consult with Indigenous peoples in the area. In particular, Bennett told the company to:

  • do more to factor traditional knowledge into its work;
  • clarify whether it will pay for and conduct an Indigenous knowledge study the company apparently once pledged to produce with the Liidlii Kue First Nation;
  • spend more time talking to Indigenous groups about their request for an independent review of a diversion plan at Sundog Creek;
  • establish exactly how each Indigenous group will be involved in monitoring the project; and
  • discuss with those groups how much funding Canadian Zinc can provide for that monitoring.

In the wake of the initial environmental assessment report, the Nahanni Butte Dene Band wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Band complained to the Prime Minister that the report provided conditional approval for the all-season road without requiring Canadian Zinc to first sign a land use agreement with the Band.

A month later, in a letter of its own, Canadian Zinc told the federal government it was in “advanced discussions” with the Band over such a land use agreement, and was also hoping to find funding to support the building of a youth centre for the community.

Canadian Zinc went on to state that traditional knowledge “needs to be provided in a timely manner and with reasonable expectations with respect to involvement in the studies and assessments.”

The mine itself, which sits roughly 100 km northwest of Nahanni Butte inside the Nahanni National Park Reserve, is at an advanced stage of construction. The company says it holds all the permits it needs – other than all-season road permitting – to begin mining zinc, lead and silver.

A report late last year suggested Prairie Creek could earn $1.3 billion over a 15-year mine life, creating 330 full-time jobs in the region. However, building the road and turning the mine operational will require an estimated $279 million in funding from investors before any of that can happen.

In a news release, Don MacDonald – president and chief executive of NorZinc, of which Canadian Zinc is a wholly owned subsidiary – said the company was “very pleased with this positive news.”

MacDonald said: “Our work will continue in the coming months towards issuance of the permit and to construction of the all season road and the additional facilities to bring the high grade Prairie Creek zinc-lead-silver mine into production.”