Why Does the Ajax Mine Proposal Need a Federal Environmental Review Panel?

Posted by Don Barz on September 13th, 2011 10:34pm

Currently, the Ajax open pit copper-gold mine proposal located partly within and immediately upslope and upwind of Kamloops, a city of 90,000 people, is only subject to a provincial environmental assessment and a federal comprehensive study.  Mine projects with far lesser community impacts have received the top-level environmental assessment available in Canada, a federal review panel, a group of experts appointed by the federal Minister of Environment, and operating at arms-length from the federal government.  The Marathon open pit copper and metals mine proposal, 10 kilometres from Marathon Ontario, a mine that is only one-third the size (22,000 tonnes of ore per day versus 60,000 tonnnes of ore and 120,000 tonnes of waste rock per day for Ajax), one-half the life-span (11.5 years versus 23 years), and only potentially affecting 3,863 people, recently received a federal panel review (August 9, 2011), while the much larger Ajax mine located to the much larger community of Kamloops has not.  Why?    

KAPA believes that the Ajax mine needs to be subject to the same level of scrutiny and opportunities for public participation that the Marathon mine is undergoing.  The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency notes that the essential difference between the current second-tier level of environmental assessment for the Ajax mine and a federal panel review is the feature of “Extensive public participation”.  As the CEAA states:  “in panel reviews, members of the public may participate to identify issues that need to be addressed and may appear before the panel in public hearings to present their evidence, concerns and recommendations.”

What are some of the issues that require in-depth analysis by a federal panel for the Ajax project?

  • Unlike many of the other mine projects reviewed by federal panels which are located in isolation from other sources of industrial pollution, the Ajax mine will add to the particulate matter (dust) load of an inversion prone valley that already has many other sources of particulate matter (e.g., Domtar pulp mill, Lafarge cement plant, Afton New Gold mine, automobile and train exhaust).  The impact of this additional particulate matter from Ajax must be assessed in relation to these other sources.  The meteorological conditions for the Ajax project are far more complicated due to the location of a major city located on the valley floor and the side hills down-slope from the proposed mine.  The de-vegetation of up to 2,500 hectares of generally south facing terrain close to a major city could create localized heat island effects, which could affect wind patterns in the mine-residential interface.  An air pollution meteorologist would be an appropriate appointment to a panel for the Ajax mine.
  • Due to the huge size of the Ajax mine and its location in an arid, windy region, even the most stringent dust control measures will not contain all of the dust generated by mine operations.  The questions are: How much dust will be generated? What will be the chemical content of this dust?  And what will be the health effects of this dust?  Metals that are considered toxic, that have been found in measurable amounts in the Ajax ore and waste rock include: arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, lead, manganese nickel, uranium, vanadium, and zinc.  (Source: Assessment Report on the Abacus-New Gold Joint Venture Diamond Drilling Program on the Ajax Property from November 1, 2007 to October 7, 2008).  Although mercury was not assayed according to the Assessment Report, it is known that mercury exists in some of the rock types in the Ajax area (pp. 8-9, Geochemical Summary Interpretation Report on the GM Mineral Claims, February 2008).  In addition to these naturally occurring elements, potentially toxic particulate matter from chemicals used in blasting, concentration and other mine activities is very likely.  A human health toxicologist would be an appropriate appointment to the Ajax mine review panel. 
  • Unlike the other mine projects reviewed by federal panels, the close proximity of the Ajax mine to ranches and residential areas means that the potential for a serious decline in property values for thousands of property owners is very high.  Also, the likely disruption of residential expansion in southwest Kamloops could have serious financial implications for the City of Kamloops.  An urban land economist would be an appropriate appointment to a panel for the Ajax mine.
  • Only nine kilometers from the proposed Ajax open pit, New Gold is developing its underground mine.  New Gold will be utilizing a tailings pond, while KGHM Ajax is proposing a 940 acre dry-stack tailings storage area, which in the often windy and arid conditions of the Kamloops area, could be a major source of dust pollution.  The issue of combining tailings storage from these two mines needs to be considered.  A mining engineer with considerable dust abatement experience would be an appropriate appointment to the Ajax mine review panel.
  • The potential loss of Jacko Lake, a highly productive fishing lake, and the possibility of airborne or liquid effluent from the Ajax mine entering the salmon-rich Thompson River system calls for an aquatic biologist to be appointed to the Ajax mine review panel.

In addition to a less meaningful level of public participation in a “comprehensive study”, the current environmental assessment process will be conducted entirely by a working group, consisting mainly of provincial government employees who also have other job responsibilities.  In contrast, a federal review panel not only is comprised of experts in various fields, but the panel also has a budget to hire additional expertise to assist in its work.  Recently, the provincial assessment for the Prosperity Mine proposal only found one “significant adverse effect” of the proposal.  When the same project was studied by a federal review panel, this panel found several other significant impacts.  The provincial assessment process held only 3 two hour “open houses”, while the review panel held hearings for 30 days.  Will the people of Kamloops suffer from the same lack of environmental assessment and inadequate public participation?

KAPA believes that the people of Kamloops deserve the highest level of scrutiny so that they can make informed decisions about the mine.  This level of scrutiny can only be done by a federal review panel, which is more independent, open, and much more rigorous than a “comprehensive study”.  Only through the highest level of public participation, where all the questions which are relevant to the project can be asked of the proponent and government regulators, will public confidence in the right decisions being made about the Ajax mine be fulfilled.

If you support KAPA’s demand for a federal review panel for the Ajax project, please write Peter Kent, Federal Minister of Environment at: Minister@ec.gc.ca. We have even provided a sample letter here for The Honourable Peter Kent.


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