The owners of the Prairie Creek Mine in the Northwest Territories’ Dehcho region should hear this month whether they will be granted a water licence and land permit for the project.
Canadian Zinc Corporation, the parent company of NorZinc, applied to the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board in March 2021 for a new land permit and renewed water licence covering the proposed underground zinc, lead and silver mine.
The company has expanded its plans since the project was originally granted a water licence in 2013, arguing that’s needed to cover what are likely to be increased capital and operating costs.
During a four-day public hearing in December, Rohan Hazeltron, NorZinc’s president and chief executive, described the proposed project as a “responsible mine” with a small physical and environmental footprint.
He said Prairie Creek would provide more than 350 jobs and generate more than $1 billion in government taxes and royalties during its life. He also pointed out zinc has been named a critical mineral in Canada, arguing zinc is important for a green and decarbonized economy.
“I’m a firm believer in the ability for resource development to bring economic development and improvement and reconciliation to this part of Canada,” he said.
Federal, territorial and Indigenous governments and organizations, meanwhile, used the same hearing to outline concerns about Canadian Zinc’s proposal and recommendations to address the mine’s potential impact on the environment and Indigenous rights.
The mine site is located in the southern Mackenzie Mountains adjacent to Prairie Creek, also known as Tl’o Dehe, about 43 kilometres upstream from its confluence with the South Nahanni River. It is less than seven kilometres downstream from the Nahanni National Park Reserve, or Nahʔą Dehé.
In letters sent to the land and water board last month, intervenors said many of their concerns had been partially or fully addressed by Canadian Zinc, but some remained outstanding.
Length of water licence
One proposal all intervenors took issue with was the length of water licence that Canadian Zinc requested.
Canadian Zinc was initially granted a water licence with a seven-year term in 2013. The company now wants a water licence with a 25-year term that takes into account larger stockpiles and improvements to the mine’s water management plan.
David Harpley, vice president of permitting for NorZinc, explained that as a junior company, financing for the project is critical but made challenging by permits that expire before the end of the mine’s life. (Based on preliminary assessments, the Prairie Creek Mine has a projected lifespan of 15 years. NorZinc said it could remain in operation for years beyond then.)
To address any concerns about having a lengthier licence, Harpley suggested that a condition be added requiring a regulatory review every five years.
Representatives for the territorial government, however, said there is no precedent for a water licence to have such a condition. Due to the “extreme level of uncertainty” with the mine proposal, particularly regarding water management, the GNWT said a five to seven-year term would be more appropriate.
Parks Canada and the Líídlįį Kúę First Nation also recommended a term of five to seven years for the water licence, while the Acho Dene Koe First Nation said it should be no longer than seven years and the Nahɂą Dehé Dene Band recommended a term of eight years.
Other outstanding concerns
The Acho Dene Koe First Nation, in particular, felt its concerns had not been addressed and its members had not been properly consulted.
The First Nation cited potential impacts from increased heavy traffic and metals runoff on the Indigenous and treaty rights of its members, and criticized what it described as a lack of a meaningful aquatic effects monitoring program.
“Our position is that our concerns have not been heard, have not been considered and have not been accommodated,” the First Nation wrote.
“We look at how this project has been proposed and can’t help but feel there are better alternatives to the successful construction and operation of the Prairie Creek Mine.”
The First Nation called for those involved in the project to shift from an “adversarial culture to one that is based on mutual respect and collaboration to proactively address concerns.”
The Nahɂą Dehé Dene Band, however, stressed that the mine site and proposed access road are located entirely within its traditional territory. Elder Jim Bedsaka said while the community of Nahanni Butte supports the mine, it had been “getting a lot of interference” from other communities claiming rights.
“We should be the one who approves it.” he said. “There are so many little concerns outside of the community slowing down the project. We have money now. Let’s, if we can, approve it.”
Councillor Jane Konisenta echoed those sentiments, saying the band supports the mine because it wants to create jobs for the region.
The Acho Dene Koe First Nation said criticism that the mine site is not within its traditional territory was “a very narrow view of impacts.”
NorZinc has signed impact benefit agreements with the Nahɂą Dehé Dene Band and Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation, who each say they are committed to ensuring the project moves forward in an environmentally and socially responsible way.
“We must take care of the land so the land can take care of us,” the Líídlįį Kúę First Nation wrote to the land and water board.
Parks Canada, in its closing arguments, said it “found the lack of baseline information, commitments to monitoring, and contingency planning to be insufficient” for the federal agency to “have confidence” the Prairie Creek Mine won’t negatively impact the national park reserve.
The federal agency pointed out that the park reserve has a greater diversity of vegetation than any other area of comparable size in the NWT, which could be impacted by dust from mining activities.
The land and water board is expected to make its decision on Canadian Zinc’s licence application this month. If approved, it will be sent to the minister for review, who will have 90 days to make the final decision.
The Prairie Creek mine site was previously developed in the 1980s, when Cadillac Explorations constructed infrastructure and facilities. The mine was in production for three months before it was placed in receivership. Canadian Zinc Corporation acquired the property in 1991.