Admitting the request is “extraordinary,” the Acho Dene Koe First Nation is asking the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board for more time to decide if a new environmental assessment is needed for NorZinc’s planned Prairie Creek mine.
Just a month ago, the First Nation said in writing there was no need for another environmental assessment of the project. Yet in an August 10 letter, the First Nation said it had changed its mind.
NorZinc and the neighbouring Nahæâ Dehé Dene Band both registered surprise at the abrupt change in letters of their own two days later. They each sought to counter claims made by the Acho Dene Koe First Nation about the project and engagement process.
NorZinc is trying to build a silver, zinc, and lead mine on land surrounded by the Nahanni National Park Reserve, west of Fort Simpson.
The mine’s original environmental assessment was completed in 2011, while a separate environmental assessment for a connected all-season access road led to ministerial approval in 2018. Other assessments related to the project, such as for drilling programs, were completed in the early 2000s.
The mine is now seeking a water licence and land-use permit for mining operations. Once those are approved, NorZinc will likely still need to have several significant management plans approved before an underground mine can begin operating.
If the land and water board sides with Fort Liard-based Acho Dene Koe’s latest request, a new environmental assessment would be triggered that would be expected to significantly delay the project’s existing timeline.
An environmental assessment examines the potential impacts of proposed developments to promote sustainability and avoid costly mistakes,” according to guidelines issued by the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board.
In 2011, the review board that completed the original assessment for Prairie Creek found the mine “is not likely to have significant adverse impacts on the environment or to be a cause of significant public concern.”
David Harpley, NorZinc’s vice-president of permitting, said the company has since developed “a better project in terms of environmental protection” than the one assessed and approved a decade ago, with “much less effluent load now expected to be discharged and greenhouse gases emitted.”
ADKFN retracts support for mine
The August 10 Acho Dene Koe letter, signed by acting band manager Boyd Clark, asserts things have changed in the month since it first provided feedback on NorZinc’s land use-permit and water licence renewal applications.
“In our initial submission dated July 15, 2021, we stated that at that time, we did not believe an environmental assessment would be necessary. However, based on the nature of new information learned and its potential impacts on Acho Dene Koe First Nation, we retract our position, and request further time to determine whether an environmental assessment is required,” the letter to the land and water board states. The board is responsible for screening applications and determining whether to pass them on to the review board for an environmental assessment.
The letter stated that in 2010, when the first environmental assessment was being completed, the First Nation supported the mine development as long as rules were followed and NorZinc – formerly the Canadian Zinc Corporation – worked collaboratively to ensure economic benefits for the community.
In this week’s retraction, ADKFN lists six new reasons for requesting an extension. The First Nation said this in part stems from a review of information NorZinc uploaded to the land and water board’s online review system on July 31, 2021, when the company asked to increase the number of haul days to move material out of the future mine.
“We assert that the substance of the initial environmental assessment no longer adequately conveys the impacts of this project on the environment and Acho Dene Koe First Nation’s cultural, social, and economic well-being,” the First Nation wrote.
NorZinc, meanwhile, says it engaged with ADKFN representatives three times regarding the applications in question and no issues or comments were brought up at a pre-application engagement session, nor at a question-and-answer forum.
The company says the traffic increase is minor and won’t affect wildlife or air quality, but the First Nation says a 25-percent increase in hauling traffic along Highway 7 will affect cabin owners who live along the highway “as well as the spiritual connectedness to the land, which may be actively avoided by our members.”
The Nahæâ Dehé in Nahanni Butte say the traffic increase on Highway 7 – which it calls “the only evidence” outlined by the Acho Dene Koe First Nation for its change in position – “is entirely consistent with the application materials available to ADKFN on July 15, 2021.”
NorZinc also said the information regarding traffic is not new, but rather “part of the normal process whereby further clarification is provided to information already provided.”
ADKFN said engagement and incorporation of Indigenous knowledge into the project has not been as smooth as NorZinc claims, adding it is “not certain whether Acho Dene Koe First Nation’s interests can be adequately accommodated through this bilateral process.” The First Nation outlined similar concerns in a letter to the land and water board a year ago.
NorZinc says it met with ADKFN five times in 2019 and 2020 to discuss benefits of the project and felt progress was made at each meeting.
The Acho Dene Koe First Nation says it is concerned NorZinc is not fully considering the impact of its project on the First Nation and that issues it has raised, such as how land will be impacted downstream from the project, have been dismissed. ADKFN says the company is minimizing its concerns and instead focusing on the positions of other First Nations that have signed agreements with NorZinc.
The Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation, in Fort Simpson, signed an impact benefit agreement with NorZinc on the same day the Acho Dene Koe letter was sent. Nahanni Butte’s Nahæâ Dehé Dene Band (NDDB) signed an agreement with the company in 2019.
The Nahæâ Dehé letter fired back at ADKFN’s claims, saying the First Nation’s asserted territory is upstream from any water that could be affected by discharges from the mine, and that the mine and access road are located “entirely within” the Dene Band’s traditional territory.
“Agreements between NDDB, ADKFN, and Saamba K’e First Nation have acknowledged NDDB’s primary interests in the immediate vicinity of Nahanni Butte,” wrote Chief Steve Vital and four councillors. “As such, ADKFN’s statements are not consistent with these agreements.
“The only reasonable explanation for this change in position, given little new technical information, is that ADKFN seeks to delay or redirect the water board’s process for political purposes. It is in fact stated in ADKFN’s letter that their bilateral negotiations have recently broken down, which is very likely the cause of their sudden reversal in approach.”
Stating the Nahæâ Dehé “have the greatest potential for both impacts and benefits from its development,” the band recommended the project proceed to the permitting stage and that the land and water board deny ADKFN’s request for more time to consider an environmental assessment.
NorZinc waiting on study proposals
NorZinc, addressing ADKFN’s concerns about inclusion of traditional knowledge in the planning process, said the company is “willing to support a reasonable traditional knowledge study” in relation to the all-season road. The company cited letters from 2019 in which it told the First Nation it will minimize risks posed by the road to archaeological or sensitive sites.
“Since these letters, [NorZinc] has made at least three requests to ADKFN for ADKFN to provide their [traditional knowledge] study proposals. To date, no such proposals have been received,” wrote Harpley, the vice-president of permitting.
The First Nation said if the land and water board does not give it time to consider the need for another environmental assessment, there will have been a “lack of adequate consultation and accommodation of Acho Dene Koe First Nation’s rights through the regulatory process.”
NorZinc, however, took issue with ADKFN’s interpretation of the land and water board’s processes and procedures, saying the First Nation’s “incomplete understanding” has been a “recurring theme.”
“As we understand them, these [processes] are intended to provide procedural fairness for proponents and intervenors,” wrote Harpley.
“We are not aware of any precedent for granting a comment extension nearly one month after the comment deadline, and for an unspecified period. Therefore, from a purely procedural perspective, ADKFN’s request should be denied,” he wrote.
Shelagh Montgomery, the executive director of the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board, said the board will consider the First Nation’s request later this month.