Murray River Project delayed for Caribou Review

hdTrent Ernst, Editor

The Murray River project hit a roadblock last week, when the Minister of Environment and Climate Change decided that the Project is likely to cause significant adverse cumulative environmental effects.

As a result, the question of whether those effects are justified in the circumstances must now be referred to the Governor in Council.

HD Mining, which received its Environmental Assessment Certificate (EAC) from the BC Government for the Murray River Project on October 1 of last year, was expected to be making a final decision on whether to go ahead on the project sometime in the next couple of months.

That timeline will most likely be extended thanks to this latest decision.

Indeed, says Jody Shimkus, Vice President of Environmental and Regulatory Affairs for the company, there is no expected timeline for a decision anymore. She says this decision frees the government to take as much time as they like to make the decision.

According to the Government of Canada’s project website, the decision is due to cumulative adverse environmental effects on the Quintette herd of Southern Mountain Caribou, which is listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act.

The Governor-in-Council will determine if the “significant adverse environmental effects” are justified in the circumstances.

“The Agency also concludes that taking into account the implementation of key mitigation measures, the Project is not likely to cause other significant adverse environmental effects,” says the report.

Just three days before the decision came down, the Canadian and British Columbian Governments announced the undertaking of a joint study to review the regulations in place for the protection of Southern Mountain Caribou and their habitat.

“The purpose of this joint study,” says the announcement, “is to inform a critical habitat protection assessment under the federal Species at Risk Act to determine what additional steps may need to be taken by federal or provincial governments to protect and recover Southern Mountain Caribou.”

A final decision on the Project will be informed by available and relevant scientific information and the traditional knowledge provided by Indigenous Peoples involved in the environmental assessment of the Project, says the government.

The company says Shimkus, has mitigated all effects on the environment, including caribou in their. “The provincial government did not have any issues with the proposals,” she says. But the federal government appears to be awaiting the outcome of the study before making a decision.

How long that study could take is anyone’s guess, though a final report is expected in six months. 

At the same time, the project is awaiting its mines act certificate, which would allow them to start building the mine, once the environmental certificates are in place.

While they were hoping to have all their permits in place by the end of this year, delays had pushed that to second quarter of next year. Shimjus says delays in the Federal Environmental Assessment caused them to revise their plans.

The mine, in and of itself, was not enough to cause the government’s concerns, but, when taken cumulatively with other activities in the area, including coal mining, wind energy, hydroelectric, oil and gas exploration, and other commercial activities, “the Agency is of the view that in combination, the Project and these activities are likely to affect migratory birds, fish and wildlife, and cause changes to the terrestrial and aquatic environment that are likely to affect current use of lands and resources for traditional activities.”

However, it is the caribou the Canadian Government is most worried about, “the Project, in combination with other physical activities that have been or will be carried out, will undermine the survival and recovery of the Quintette herd of southern mountain caribou.”

HD did not predict residual effects to caribou and considered caribou a high-elevation species, arguing that Project is located at a low elevation. They therefore did not include use of caribou in the assessment of effects on current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes, according to the Environmental Report.

The government disagrees with HD’s conclusion. They note the Project, “including 800 hectares of the subsidence zone, overlaps with Type 12 matrix range habitat and that caribou have historically used low elevation forested habitats above and adjacent to the Murray River, which may once again be important as the Quintette herd recovers. Project-related activities, therefore, have the potential to disturb or destroy critical habitat, as defined in the Recovery Strategy, necessary for the survival and recovery of the declining Quintette herd despite the limited observations of caribou in the mine site footprint.”

Caribou also represent a species of subsistence, cultural, and spiritual importance for local Aboriginal groups and a priority game species for local first nations. The Saulteau First Nations have identified caribou habitat within 250 meters of the project and have expressed concerns that the potential effects of the Project to caribou and other wildlife would “affect Saulteau First Nations’ hunting activities that are practiced in the mine site footprint and Local Study Area.”

Shimkus is hopeful that the governments will be able to complete the review of the Quintette herd soon, so the company will be able to make a decision whether to go ahead with the project or not.