Recent news that Seabridge Gold’s KSM Project in Northwest British Columbia was issued an Environmental Assessment Certificate by the Province of British Columbia was monumental on several fronts. In addition to its size (with 38 million ounces of gold, plus 10 billion pounds of copper), KSM asserts to be the world’s largest undeveloped gold/copper project by reserves.
The $5.3 billion project marks just the second metal mine in five years to receive environmental assessment approval from the Government of British Columbia, a lengthy, comprehensive and expensive process.
This endorsement is an impressive achievement, backed by more than six years of aboriginal, community and government engagement; seven years of environmental, engineering and exploration work; and six years in the environmental assessment process.
For Seabridge, the provincial gold seal of approval recognizes that KSM is a safe, well-designed, and an environmentally responsible project that is technically feasible and offers significant economic benefits to both British Columbia and Canada. But it also acknowledges the amount of effort the company put into engagement with Treaty and First Nations communities to keep them informed and obtain feedback.
According to Rudi Fronk, chairman and CEO of Seabridge, responsible exploration and development was the foundation of KSM’s Environmental Assessment application, focussed on four key areas: ensuring the health and safety of communities and employees, protecting the environment for present and future generations, ensuring communities benefit from the project at every stage and keeping communities informed and engaged.
Fronk insists it’s more than just a commitment, it’s a mindset woven into the fabric of his company’s makeup and a must in today’s resource development industry.
“It’s not enough to just have an economically and technically feasible project that satisfies investors if you can’t prove that your project is not going to harm the environment. If you don’t meet with local communities and First Nations to talk about the project, answer their questions and incorporate their feedback, and also make an effort to ensure they benefit in meaningful ways, your project won’t have a chance of succeeding. That’s earning the ‘social licence to operate.’ The term may be overused but the meaning behind it cannot be disregarded or downplayed,” says Fronk.
Expanding on the engagement of the project’s stakeholders, Fronk shares insight into the amount of work the company undertook. “Over six years we held 23 open houses in communities in British Columbia and Alaska, participated in 32 project working group meetings and had 57 visits with Treaty and First Nations. We made $500 million in design changes in response to concerns of the local aboriginal groups.”
Expensive, yes, but Fronk says, well worth it. The project has been accepted by the Nisga’a Lisims Government as well as the Tahltan, Gitxsan, Gitanyow and Skii Lax Ha First Nations. Acceptance of resource projects in aboriginal territory has never been more important in light of the recent Supreme Court of Canada’s Tsilhqot’in land title decision.
Safety by design
A well-designed, technically sound project that ensures the health and safety of people and the environment is a critical factor in the Environmental Assessment.
The recent tailings pond breach at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley copper-gold mine in the interior of B.C. has brought increased scrutiny and skepticism by First Nations, government, investors and the public about the safety of such facilities at existing and proposed mines in the province.
Rudi Fronk understands and appreciates the increased attention, but wants it known that KSM’s proposed tailings management facility has been extensively reviewed. “Scrutiny by all levels of government and independent engineers has added several years and millions of dollars in cost to the Environmental Assessment, but it has been worth it. We are confident our design is sound.”
Protecting the environment
Fronk says protection of the environment, including water quality and aquatic life, is a guiding principle behind its design. “The water management system design process was influenced by concerns associated with potential downstream effects both in the Unuk and Nass rivers. Any water used in the mining process will be treated before it’s released. KSM will fully meet applicable water quality standards established by the Canadian and Provincial governments.”
There’s no doubt that a project the size of KSM is going to have an environmental footprint, but every possible step has been taken to reduce the footprint and minimize impacts. A number of design changes were made to minimize potential impacts to the environment, fish and wildlife, such as adding a liner to the centre cell of the Tailings Management Facility and relocating the mine’s access road away from areas of sensitive fish habitat.
Fronk says that Seabridge has conducted extensive environmental baseline studies, including fish and fish habitat, wildlife, aquatics and water quality, and vegetation, since the fall of 2007 to support development of the project design, water and wildlife management plans, and reclamation and post-operation monitoring plans.
The company will be under legal obligation to ensure it meets 41 conditions outlined in the Provincial EA Certificate.
Behind the numbers
Obviously there must be strong economic potential for local communities and government behind any approval. Over its 52-year mine life, KSM will be a major driver for economic development, generating 1,800 direct and 4,770 indirect jobs across Canada during the five-year construction period and 1,040 direct jobs annually while in production, many of which will be local.
Seabridge already employs many aboriginal and non-aboriginal men and women from local communities near KSM and has been actively contributing to education and training programs in the region to help create skilled, local labour. And since 2006, the company has spent more than $176 million in exploration, engineering and environmental work, with approximately 80 per cent ($140 million) in local B.C. communities.
But, the Environmental Assessment Certificate is just the first step. Seabridge is now focused on obtaining a similar approval from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (as part of a joint harmonized EA review), as well as the necessary permits, strategic partnerships and financing to begin construction.
In the eyes of Rudi Fronk, KSM is a demonstration of what can be achieved when a company relies on the expertise of world-class consultants, incorporates recommendations from local aboriginal and other subject-matter experts, submits to a stringent regulatory process and allows human and environmental protection to guide every action.