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Voisey's Bay Mine and Mill Environmental Assessment Panel Report

2 The Project and Sustainable Development

2.1 Context

To ensure the effects of the Project were properly assessed, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) specifically instructed the Panel

  • to consider the need for the Project;
  • to address the Project's effects on biological diversity, and on the capacity of renewable resources to meet the needs of present and future generations; and
  • to examine the extent to which VBNC applied the precautionary principle to the Project.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (the CEA Act) defines sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." In the guidelines, the Panel interpreted the three objectives of sustainable development as follows, and indicated that these interpretations would guide its review of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and other submissions:

  • the preservation of ecosystem integrity and maintenance of biological diversity;
  • respect for the right of future generations to the sustainable use of renewable resources; and
  • the attainment of durable and equitable social and economic benefits.

The Whitehorse Mining Accord looked at the implications of sustainable development for mineral resource extraction and used a multi-stakeholder approach to develop a strategic approach to sustainability in mining. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) further developed these issues and included the objective that "the economic and social benefits of mineral development are not all consumed by the present generation and that current investment in human and physical capital benefit future as well as present generations."

In the EIS, VBNC committed to extract minerals and metal products efficiently at all stages of mining and processing, in order to reduce environmental effects and improve economic benefits, and to respect the needs and values of other resource users throughout the life of the Project.

Many submissions to the Panel addressed various aspects of sustainability that are discussed throughout this report. This chapter describes how the Panel reached an overall conclusion about the Project in the context of sustainable development.

2.2 Ecosystem Integrity, Biodiversity and Renewable Resources

The Panel asked VBNC to describe how the Project would extract the mineral resource at Voisey's Bay without impairing ecosystem integrity or biodiversity, and how it planned to protect the plant and wildlife resources that Aboriginal people have used for generations and that continue to form a vital part of their local economy, and social and spiritual well-being.

VBNC acknowledged the ecological values and sensitivities of the Landscape Region in which the Project would be located, especially those associated with Reid Brook, the Gooselands and the marine resources of the five-bay complex. It also acknowledged the significance of the landfast sea ice as habitat and as an extension of the land for the purposes of local travel and harvesting. VBNC indicated that the design and operation of the Project would

  • minimize the land-based footprint of the Project and, hence, the amount of disturbance to terrestrial habitat;
  • prevent direct Project discharges into the Reid Brook system or the Voisey's Bay estuary;
  • prevent acidification of streams and lakes and subsequent mobilization of metals into the food chain by storing sulphide-rich tailings and waste rock permanently under water;
  • minimize effects on wildlife through employee policies and training and various forms of mitigation; and
  • reduce the effects of shipping on landfast ice by limiting winter shipping and through other forms of mitigation.

Many presenters told the Panel that, to protect the environment and the resources that support Aboriginal harvesters and their families, VBNC must pay meticulous attention to dust control; water, tailings and waste rock management; and protection of habitat for plants, fish and wildlife. In every North Coast community, people expressed great concern about the effects of winter shipping on landfast ice, and Inuit in particular also questioned the effects of the airstrip on the Gooselands. The Panel addresses all of these issues in chapters 5 through 13.

The Panel concludes that, in many respects, the Project is a relatively conventional mining operation using proven mitigation measures, and that its effects can be predicted with reasonable certainty. However, the Panel recognizes that the Project must deal with a number of significant challenges, including

  • the protection of the Reid Brook system, given the location of the open pit and other Project features;
  • the protection of the Gooselands and the waterfowl that use this salt marsh;
  • safe navigation through ice and the complex pattern of islands, headlands and shoals;
  • the protection of sea ice users during VBNC shipping through landfast ice; and
  • effective reclamation in a subarctic environment.

The Panel concludes that VBNC could construct, operate and decommission the Project without either significantly damaging local and regional ecosystem functions, or reducing the capacity of renewable resources to support present and future generations. To do so, VBNC must operate within an effective environmental management system, as the EIS proposes; implement further mitigation, as this report recommends; and use the results of a scientifically sound effects monitoring program to improve environmental performance throughout the life of the Project.

However, the Panel believes that sufficient uncertainty remains about the effects of shipping through landfast ice that this component of the Project should not proceed until these questions have been resolved to the satisfaction of the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) and government.

The Panel also concludes that effective environmental management of the Project would require, not only diligent efforts by VBNC, but also the continued cooperation of the four parties to the MOU and the development of an environmental co-management organizational structure in northern Labrador, such as that described in Chapter 17.

2.3 Durable and Equitable Social and Economic Benefits

The Panel asked VBNC to indicate how the Project would deliver durable and equitable social and economic benefits to Aboriginal people in northern Labrador, other Labrador residents and the province. VBNC stated that the Project would, over a period of 20 to 25 years, deliver these benefits in three ways:

  • direct employment at the Project and related business opportunities, targeted to LIA and Innu Nation members and the rest of Labrador through the application of a company policy called the adjacency principle;
  • financial participation in the Project by LIA and the Innu Nation through impact and benefit agreements (IBAs); and
  • increased government taxation revenues.

Many individuals and organizations told the Panel that the Project could indeed deliver benefits, provided some crucial conditions were met. First and foremost of these was that the Project should, as proposed, last 20 to 25 years and preferably more. This would enable workers to earn pensions and accumulate savings beyond one generation, and to develop industrial and business skills that could support new economic activities. At the same time, communities could use the increased flow of income over a long period to diversify their local economies. A long duration would also reduce the risk of negative effects associated with the community boom-and-bust effect.

The Panel, and many presenters, while recognizing VBNC's intentions to develop both the open pit and underground phases of the Project, observed that two major uncertainties might affect Project life - volatile nickel prices and incomplete knowledge about the extent of the underground reserves. The Panel addresses these issues in Chapter 3, Project Need and Resource Stewardship. It concludes that, despite these uncertainties, the Project could deliver durable benefits, if VBNC is required to carry out the planned underground exploration program and to adapt production rates as necessary to ensure that the mineral resource is extracted over a period of at least 25 years.

Many presenters also told the Panel that a second crucial condition would be that VBNC deliver employment and business benefits to Innu and Inuit communities as promised, and that the fly-in/fly-out operation not become, in fact, a "fly-over" operation. VBNC and others should also ensure that both men and women benefit. The Panel addresses these issues mainly in Chapter 15, Employment and Business, and concludes that Inuit and Innu and other Labradorians would benefit from Project-related employment and business, provided that IBAs were finalized and implemented. VBNC must also ensure appropriate training (in cooperation with other parties), consistent application of the adjacency principle, and close attention to language, cultural and gender-based aspects of working conditions.

VBNC acknowledged that individuals and communities in northern Labrador would experience some negative social and economic effects and that the Project might increase economic disparity. VBNC sees these effects as mostly short term, as communities go through a period of adjustment, and indicated that long-term improvements in individual and community health and well-being would more than offset them. The Panel heard many views and concerns about these issues, which it addresses mainly in Chapter 16, Family and Community Life, and Public Services.

The Panel concludes that this is a complex issue, that the Project would cause both negative and positive social effects, and that these effects would not be distributed equally. The Panel also concludes, however, that an economy based only on harvesting renewable resources is unlikely to be capable of sustaining the growing Innu and Inuit populations, and that social and economic change is both inevitable and ongoing. The Panel believes that the Project could deliver significant positive social effects and that negative effects would be manageable if IBAs were successfully negotiated and implemented, and increased government revenues were reinvested in regional services and infrastructure. As discussed in Chapter 4, the Panel also believes that land claims agreements - or equivalent binding measures dealing with Project consultation, compensation and participation - must be in place before the Project starts to ensure Inuit and Innu can more effectively control their lives and futures.

2.4 Precautionary Principle

The MOU instructed the Panel to consider the extent of the precautionary principle's application to the Project. The Rio Declaration of 1992, to which Canada is a signatory, states that the precautionary approach requires that "where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." The CEA Act provides no guidance on the application of the precautionary principle to environmental assessment.

In determining whether Project-environment interactions could lead to serious or irreversible damage, the Panel considered

  • the degree of novelty of the interaction in similar environments;
  • the degree of uncertainty about potential effects;
  • the magnitude and duration of potential effects and the extent to which they might be irreversible; and
  • the extent and scale at which potential effects could impair biological productivity and ecosystem health.

The Panel considers that the precautionary principle or approach requires a proponent to demonstrate that its actions will not result in serious or irreversible damage. Specifically, the Panel asked VBNC to show that it had

  • designed the Project to avoid adverse effects wherever possible;
  • developed mitigation measures, or contingency or emergency response plans, of proven effectiveness;
  • designed monitoring programs to ensure rapid response and correction when adverse effects are detected (or would design these in cooperation with others, where appropriate); and
  • developed adequate systems to remediate any residual accidental or unplanned adverse effects of the Project and demonstrated sufficient financial resources to compensate for such effects.

The Panel asked VBNC to take a conservative approach to its predictions by, for example, using worst case scenarios, where appropriate. The Panel sought assurance that, if there was great uncertainty about the seriousness and irreversibility of the effects of any Project component, that VBNC could reduce this uncertainty, correct the problem or suggest a viable alternative to that component.

VBNC stated that, in its view, the precautionary principle as applied to the Project means anticipation and prevention, so designers and planners should incorporate environmental information into all stages of their activities. VBNC advised the Panel of the ways in which it had incorporated the precautionary principle into the Project's design to prevent adverse effects, prevent pollution, deal with unplanned events, develop monitoring and follow-up programs, and ensure that the company's liability and insurance regime holds it accountable for damages. The Panel examines these claims in detail in the appropriate chapters.

The Innu Nation and LIA recommended more restrictive interpretations of the precautionary principle. For example, one expert appearing on behalf of the Innu Nation suggested that the principle requires the Panel to begin with the hypothesis that the Project would damage the environment, and to reject that hypothesis only under the weight of contrary evidence. The Innu Nation also stated that any action with long-term or irreversible consequences precludes some future options, which is contrary to the principle of sustainability. It asserted that adaptive management relies on a monitoring and mitigation approach, which would violate both the precautionary and sustainability principles. The Innu Nation expressed the precautionary principle simply as "if we wait and see, it will be too late."

The Panel concludes that it was not presented with plausible hypotheses, well grounded in experience and theory, that the Project, or key elements of it, would cause serious or irreversible adverse environmental effects. The Panel also concludes that any uncertainties about these matters could be satisfactorily addressed by the measures recommended in this report.

2.5 Aboriginal Knowledge

The MOU instructed the Panel to "give full consideration to traditional ecological knowledge whether presented orally or in writing." The Panel provided guidance on this requirement in its guidelines by characterizing traditional ecological knowledge as a subset of Aboriginal knowledge. It defined the latter as "the knowledge, understanding, and values held by Aboriginal people that bear on the impacts of the Undertaking and their mitigation," based on "personal observation, collective experience, and oral transmission over generations." The Panel further noted that Aboriginal knowledge is evolving with new experience and understanding, so it did not wish to limit Aboriginal people's contribution to the assessment to what is commonly known as traditional ecological knowledge.

Those elements of Aboriginal knowledge relating to values, norms and priorities were particularly important in the scoping phase of the review and strongly informed the Panel's guidelines. The guidelines indicated that Aboriginal knowledge relating to such matters as ecosystem function, resource abundance, resource distribution and quality, land and resource use, and social and economic well-being would be essential when developing baselines, predicting impacts and assessing the significance of effects in the EIS and during the public review.

The Panel indicated that VBNC should either obtain this information with the cooperation of other parties and present it in the EIS, or help Aboriginal persons and parties present such information directly to the Panel during the review.

In 1995, VBNC entered into discussions with LIA and the Innu Nation to obtain Aboriginal knowledge for its EIS. During the next three years, it funded workshops, reports and studies. The results of these activities were, for the most part, presented directly to the Panel by LIA and the Innu Nation, rather than in the company's EIS. The aboriginal organizations presented issues scoping reports; reports on land use, environmental knowledge and potential environmental effects; and, in the case of the Innu Nation, a report on socio-economic conditions and a video showing current Innu family and community conditions and describing personal perspectives on the Innu future. The Panel understands that VBNC did not influence, or seek to influence, the content or quality of the projects it funded.

The Panel considers that VBNC adequately conformed to the guidelines and commends its efforts in a situation where guidance and experience are lacking. When Aboriginal knowledge was presented in technical hearings, the Panel considered it on the same basis as other expert information, keeping in mind that the hearings were conducted in a non-judicial, non-adversarial fashion. The Panel considers that Aboriginal knowledge was used effectively during the review, both in the technical and the community hearings.

Conclusion

Based on the foregoing conclusions, the Panel believes that the Project could contribute significantly to sustainable social and economic development on the North Coast and in the rest of Labrador, without harming vital ecosystem functions and habitats or the ability of Inuit and Innu to keep using land in traditional ways. To make this contribution, VBNC must uphold the commitments it made during the review process and work diligently throughout the life of the Project to prevent or minimize adverse effects and maximize benefits. The Panel also believes that each of the four parties to the MOU would have a continuing and essential role to play to ensure progress towards environmental and community sustainability.

Recommendation 1

The Panel recommends that the Voisey's Bay Mine and Mill Project be authorized to proceed, subject to the terms and conditions identified in the rest of the Panel's recommendations.