First Nation-led environmental review panel rejects Ajax mine in Kamloops, B.C.

The Stk'emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation has rejected a proposed open-pit copper and gold mine south-west of Kamloops, B.C., after its months-long review of the project.

The decision could be an important upset for KGHM International, a subsidiary of Polish company KGHM Polska Miedźthat, which has been trying to push the controversial $1.3-billion project forward since 2006. 

According to the company's website, the Ajax Project is the first in B.C.'s history that was required to prepare a First Nations consultation plan as part of its environmental assessment process. 

The panel's decision was announced Saturday afternoon at a ceremony at the Moccasin Square Gardens in Kamloops, with about 200 people in attendance. 

The First Nation said it prefers to protect the long-term health of its traditional territory instead of take advantage of short-term economic benefits. 

"The current environmental approval process in British Columbia and Canada uses science but doesn't take into consideration our traditions and our culture," said band councillor Janet Jules.

"That's what we emphasized with our consultations."

Jules said the land around Jacko Lake, where the mine would be located, holds great spiritual and cultural value for the First Nation. It considers Pipsell, its name for the lake, to be a sacred site. 

Company touts employment benefits

The Ajax mine has been under discussion since 2006. According to KGHM, the mine would operate for about 20 years and would lead to 1,800 jobs during the construction phase, and 500 full-time jobs while it's in operation.

But groups like Mining Watch Canada question the company's stated economic benefits of the mine. 

Many nearby residents also voiced concerns about the mine's proximity to a dozen schools, a hospital and four seniors' homes. 

KGHM initiated its environmental evaluation process in January 2016. 

A few months after, in May, the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office put a temporary hold on the process, partly because it lacked consultation from the Stk'emlúpsemc te Secwépemc Nation. 

The project is highly controversial in Kamloops and is likely to become one of the issues at the forefront of the upcoming provincial election in May.

Kamloops City Council has yet to take an official position on the mine — including Mayor Peter Milobar, who is running as the Liberal candidate for the region. 

Councillor Donovan Cavers, running as the region's Green Party nominee, has voiced his opposition to the project. 

The environmental assessment process is still ongoing. 

According to the company, a final decision on the mine will be made by both federal and provincial environment ministers as well as B.C.'s minister of energy and mines. 

The company's offices were closed for the weekend and no one responded to requests for comment.

With files from Francis Plourde.