Simpcw First Nation and Adams Lake Indian Band have signed an agreement to work together on their joint concerns over potential impacts of the proposed Harper Creek Mine on First Nations resources and rights in their ancestral lands. Yellowhead Mining Inc. (YMI) is proposing an open pit copper, gold and silver mine in the upper Harper Creek watershed, near Vavenby. Harper Creek is a tributary of the Barriere River, so the water from Harper Creek flows into the North Thompson River and the Fraser River. The Yellowhead property covers a total of 42,636.48 hectares, and the fully developed pit will be 2400 m long and 1670 m wide with a depth of approximately 375 m. In addition to the open pit there will be a tailings pond and waste rock piles, as well as access roads and a power line right-of-way to the site. The expected lifespan of the mine is at least 28 years, during which time the concentrator is expected to process an average of 70,000 tonnes per day of material, and the average rate of mining in the pit will be 165,000 tonnes per day. The maximum storage capacity of the tailings pond will be in the range of 720,000 – 920,000 cubic metres. The site of the proposed mine is at high elevation in the upper reaches of the Harper Creek watershed.
Based on technical reviews and fieldwork focusing on the plans for the Harper Creek project, Simpcw First Nation and Adams Lake Indian Band leaders are considering a partial list of concerns about the project, including the following:
• Traditional use and archaeology fieldwork results showing extensive long-term First Nations use of resources in the project area for sustenance and spiritual purposes;
• The existence of at least two known sacred sites and/or burial sites in the project area;
• The presence of at least one species at risk (i.e. mountain caribou) in the project area;
• Potential threats to fisheries in the Harper Creek and Barriere River watersheds due to withdrawal of water upstream that could affect unfavourably both the water temperatures and useable area in downstream fish habitat;
• Potential threats to fisheries in the Harper Creek and Barriere River watersheds due to underground seepage of tailings into the watershed;
• Destruction of First Nations traditional food plants and medicinal plants in project area;
• Possible future failure of the tailings pond due to extreme natural hazards associated with global warming, e.g. high spring run-off, extreme rainy weather, debris avalanches;
• Destruction of traditional First Nations trails for traversing the project area;
• Intrusion into the project area of new roadways and power lines that dramatically increase accessibility of the area to predators, hunters, recreational fishing, berry-picking, mushroom-picking and various non-aboriginal recreational uses (e.g. off-road vehicles) that would disrupt First Nations traditional uses in the area;
• Potential contamination of the air-shed downwind of the Harper Creek project by dust and airborne tailings particles;
• Potential seismic vulnerability of the tailings pond, given the historical record of earthquakes in the project area and the position of known fault lines;
• Lack of risk assessment of potential impact of blasting over 28 years on bedrock, potentially causing seepage of contaminated mine water into aquifers;
• Lack of secure, quantifiable long-term economic benefits from either YMI or BC commensurate with the long-term damage and/or risks to First Nations aboriginal lands and resources;
• Loss of esthetic wilderness values due to the creation of a large open pit, waste rock piles and a tailings pond that will remain for many generations into the future after the mine has been decommissioned.
Simpcw and Adams Lake leaders have not yet taken a firm position either for or against the project, but they are concerned that so far neither YMI nor the provincial government have been able to clearly quantify the level of impacts and/or risks to traditional aboriginal resources values in the Harper Creek watershed, nor has it been shown that the potential economic benefits to the two First Nations communities would be commensurate to the level of potential long term damage and/or risks to their traditional lands and resources.
Chief Rita Matthew of Simpcw First Nation stated: “We are in favour of sustainable resource development for the economic benefit of all communities in our territory, but not resource extraction at any price or any level of risk to future generations.” Chief Nelson Leon of the Adams Lake Indian Band stated: “The shareholders and executives of YMI stand to make many millions over the 28-year lifespan of this project, but none of them live here – our great grandchildren will be left with a giant hole in the ground, and possibly a much impoverished and at-risk natural environment long after the mine is closed.” Both leaders expressed concern that the processes for approving the mine do not provide enough time or resources for First Nations communities to develop a plan for dealing with project impacts and obtaining appropriate economic compensation.