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Attawapiskat gives thumbs up to mining project

Thursday July 14, 2005

The Victor diamond mine project passed its latest hurdle.

July 14, 2005: Volume 32 #14

After more than two years of negotiations, Attawapiskat First Nation residents approved an Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) with De Beers Canada, paving the way for the mine project to proceed. The vote, held June 21 in Attawapiskat, constitutes community approval for the project and defines how the community and company will benefit from the mine.

The mine site, located about 90 kilometres west of the isolated Cree community, sits on the First Nation's traditional lands located along the James Bay lowlands of northern Ontario. Despite the overwhelming results ñ 85.5 per cent of on- and off-reserve votes favoured the IBA ñ Attawapiskat Chief Mike Carpenter said making residents aware of the proposal wasn't easy.

"We made an effort to find everyone we could to vote and be involved because this is everyone's future we're dealing with," Carpenter said. "We had all kinds of public consultations, but a lot of people weren't showing up." He said while it's impossible to please everyone, community leaders tried to negotiate the best deal they could to the community's residents.

"We were trying to get as much out of it as possible," Carpenter said. Citing confidentiality as a reason which prevented him from identifying specific aspects of the IBA, Carpenter said a one-time payment of about $14 million will be made for jobs and training for positions beyond general labour.

"I want our people to get qualified and certified so that when the jobs are there, we're ready for them," he said. "I know many of the residents don't have the skills and education to compete for the jobs, Ö but in the future we'll be able to. Right now there are a lot of social problems in the community we must overcome." However, the funding is conditional on the project proceeding. The environment assessment must be passed first.

"The money is tied up right now," he said. "But through joint ventures and other means, our people will be trained. They won't have to start from scratch." Carpenter said cultural issues also came up in the negotiations. "People from our community who are hired will be allowed time-off to pursue the traditional hunt," he said.

"It might have to be scheduled or done when they're not working, but we reached an agreement on it. "From a business perspective, I realize they can't lose all their workers at the same time for the hunt, but it's something that comes up in a cross-cultural business." The issue of ancient burial grounds was also covered, he said. "All the ancient grounds that we remember have already been identified and will be protected," Carpenter said.

"Some of the grounds may have been forgotten about through the years, Ö but if something is unearthed, it will be saved." The IBA outlines the benefits the community will receive from the project and details how the impacts will be mitigated.

It is a comprehensive document, which sets out the commitments of both De Beers and Attawapiskat. It includes commitments from the company regarding training and education, employment and business opportunities, environmental management, social and cultural issues, and financial compensation. "We have worked very closely with Attawapiskat for a number of years now and formed strong bonds with the community," said Jeremy Wyeth, De Beers vice-president of the Victor mining project, in a news release. "It means a great deal both to me personally, and to the company, that through this agreement the Attawapiskat community will have a variety of opportunities for business, employment, and training, which could all help the community members to improve their quality of life."

Linda Dorrington, manager of public and corporate affairs for De Beers Canada, said the IBA also outlines an annual transfer payment from the company to the community. "It relates to profitability," she said adding the more money De Beers makes on the project, the larger the payment will be. Neither officials from De Beers nor Carpenter would provide other specific details.

"I can't talk about that due to confidentiality," Carpenter said. "If we did say what we were getting from De Beers, we don't know what INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) will do with that information. It might cost us other funding." INAC said the community has nothing to worry about.

"Each community's funding is based on formulas," said Susan Bertrand, a senior information officer with INAC. "We encourage First Nations to obtain funds from other sources." Bertrand said the agreement between Attawapiskat and De Beers will have no bearing on the community's future funding. Carpenter, who voted in favour of the IBA, said the agreement also allows Attawapiskat to stop the project should environmental concerns get out of hand.

"I'm concerned about what could happen to our land, but I see the benefits outweighing the risk," Carpenter said. "But I know a lot of people were concerned about the land and voted against the project because of the environmental (concerns.)" In May, the company received conditional approval for the $982 million to build the mine by its board of directors.

So far, De Beers has spent $140 million to develop its project. Mine construction is slated to begin early next year. The mine will employ about 600 people during construction and 400 permanent positions. Funding for the project is conditional upon completion of the environmental assessment (EA), which has been ongoing for three years.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, funded by the federal government, pays for the assessments. The CEAA recently released its comprehensive study report (CSR) presenting outcomes of the environmental assessment process. The public had until July 11 to submit final comments on the report, which is the final piece of the EA.

The public comments will be reviewed and the federal government will make a decision about the future of the project. Approval of the EA will provide the community assurance that the government is satisfied with the steps outlined in the EA to address the environmental issues.

Following approval of the EA by the federal government, the IBA will be signed by the community and De Beers Canada. Both the community and De Beers are hopeful the EA will be approved in time for construction to start next January.

While Carpenter expressed some apprehension about the project, MiningWatch Canada, an organization aimed at preventing destructive mining practices, wants the project delayed because it says the mine will cause "significant environment effects" to the land. In a letter sent to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, July 5 via e-mail, Joan Kuyek, national co-ordinator of MiningWatch reported its own findings after reviewing the comprehensive study report on the Victor mine.

"We believe that the need for an independent assessment of the mine's impacts is great enough to require a panel review," Kuyek wrote. Among MiningWatch's concerns were:

•likely reduction of water flow in the Nayshkootayaow and North Rivers and their tributaries, which could affect fish and water vegetation;

• pumping of salt water into the Attawapiskat River, causing potential damage to the river's fish and wildlife that drink it; and

• required truck transportation (60 trucks a day) of dangerous substances ranging from ammonia to diesel fuel to hydrochloric acid along a remote winter road for 60 days of the year.

Dorrington responded to MiningWatch's concerns saying, "The environmental assessment was an in-depth study over the past three years. We've used world-class experts in water and air quality and vegetation to study the project. We have a project whose environmental impact will be minimized.

"It's been a long three years but we wanted to make sure we fully understand the impacts. We want to be able to put (the environment) back as close as possible (to its original state) when mining is complete. "The ground water and surface water are separated by a clay layer. There will be no impact on plant life and animals."

Government regulations outline the environmental standards De Beers must meet. "If we can't meet those standards, the government will not let the project move ahead," Dorrington said.


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