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Alaskan lake’s fate could echo across continent

US Supreme Court will decide if Lower Slate should be disposal site for mine wastes.

(Page 3 of 4)

For William, a parallel clash is playing out over a proposed mine in his own backyard in northern British Columbia. In his native tongue, the tarn he is trying to protect is Teztan Biny. The English translation is “Fish Lake."

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Vancouver-based Taseko Mines Lim­ited wants to use Fish Lake as a dumping ground for toxic wastes from its Prosperity Mine, a proposed multibillion-dollar open-pit gold and copper operation that would create 500 full-time jobs, 1,280 indirect jobs, and generate $200 million annually over two decades.

Mr. William recently was lead plaintiff in a case brought before the British Columbia Supreme Court that reaffirmed hunting and fishing rights for native tribes in the area where the mine is proposed.

“My people find it kind of ironic that the British Columbian government has been forced to recognize our historic claim and right to harvest fish, while at the same time it is considering granting permission to a mining company to destroy the lake where the fish live,” William says.

Taseko acknowledges that its activities will exact an ecological toll on Fish Lake. In exchange, the company says it will build an artificial body of water nearby and stock it with fish.

“The logic of it is insulting,” William responds. “Who is opposed to jobs? Not me. But as archaeologists have confirmed, our people have lived off the fish in Teztan Biny for thousands of years. The mining company wants us to sacrifice our heritage for an economic opportunity that will last 25 years and then leave us to deal with a ruined lake and worries about pollution for generations.”

Geographically speaking, mining companies aspiring to use lakes and rivers as dumping zones is a phenomenon happening coast to coast, says
Ramsey Hart with MiningWatch Canada. He ticks off the names of projects already in operation and others proposed in Labrador, Newfoundland, the Arctic north, and British Columbia. Many of them, he says, pit powerful mining companies against native tribes that allegedly were not consulted by provincial governments granting ore-diggers access to their aboriginal land, another fulcrum for growing conflict.

“Prosperity Mine is the poster child for controversy over mine wastes in lakes,” Hart says, “but, to some degree, regulators in Canada will be taking a cue from how the Kensington case is decided. I’m not so naive to think it will cause our provincial and federal governments to change their ways, but the message coming from the US will be undeniable.”

Conflict over definitions, toxicity
The law firm Ecojustice Canada filed an amicus brief with the US Supreme Court detailing impacts on lakes harmed by companies north of the US border.

Gov. Sarah Palin (R) of Alaska stands firmly behind Coeur’s proposal at Kensington. Coeur and the Army Corps of Engineers characterize the postmining material that would line the bottom of Lower Slate Lake as “fill” that is no more threatening than laying beach sand.