By Julie Gordon
VANCOUVER, Dec 12 (Reuters) - British Columbia is courting federal support for a copper-gold mining project in the Canadian province's interior, which a federal review panel recommended be rejected due to significant risks to the environment and local communities.
The province's minister of energy and mines, Bill Bennett, was in Ottawa on Thursday to meet with federal ministers on the New Prosperity project, owned by Taseko Mines Ltd, ahead of a final ruling by federal regulators.
An independent review panel said in October that the mine should not be built, as it could threaten water quality in a trout-bearing lake beside the mine site, and impact land and resources used for traditional purposes by local aboriginals.
But Bennett argued the project, located some 550 km (340 miles) north of Vancouver, poses no more threat than any other mining project in the province.
"Despite the fact that significant environmental risk was identified, it is possible to build this mine," he told Reuters late on Wednesday. "We do it on a regular basis here in B.C."
Bennett added the mine would be required to meet the most stringent provincial and federal standards in order to protect Fish Lake, a sacred site for the local Tsilhqot'in aboriginal people, and the surrounding environment.
Bennett spoke with Reuters ahead of a day of meetings with four federal ministers and several members of parliament from British Columbia. He will not meet with Canada's Environment Minister, Leona Aglukkaq, who is expected to make her final decision on the proposal by the end of February.
Bennett noted that the economic benefits of the development are crucial at a time when forestry jobs in the region are under threat from a pine beetle epidemic.
"It's imperative for that region that they get some good opportunities for employment and economic activity," he said.
"A big mine like this, you're looking at C$1.5 billion ($1.4 billion) to build, 700 really good jobs to construct it and then 500 ongoing jobs to operate it, so that's a pretty significant impact to that economy."
New Prosperity, which Taseko has owned since 1969, has a measured and indicated resource of 5.3 billion pounds of copper and 13.3 million ounces of gold, with a 20-year plus mine life. If approved, it could be under construction by the end of 2014.
A previous development proposal for the project was approved by the province, but then overruled by the federal government in 2010, in part because the plan called for Fish Lake to be drained and used as a tailings storage site.
Taseko revised its mine plan to address regulator concerns and reapplied in 2012, but aboriginal groups and other opponents say the revised proposal, if approved, would still harm Fish Lake and the rights of indigenous groups in the area.
"I think this is going to put Fish Lake on life support," said Roger William, a Tsilhqot'in Nation chief. "Our people will not be able to hunt or fish in that area because of concerns of contamination, so therefore it is going to impact our culture and use of the land."
William noted that the region, some 125 km (80 miles) southwest of Williams Lake, is also used by non-aboriginal people for camping and other outdoor activities.
Taseko has said it is committed to preserving Fish Lake and is spending some C$300 million extra to develop the mine in a manner that ensures the water will be protected.
The Vancouver-based miner owns and operates the Gibraltar mine, also near Williams Lake, which is the second largest open pit copper mine in the country and the region's top employer.
Taseko's shares were down 1 percent at C$2.01 on Thursday afternoon on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The stock has fallen more than 35 percent so far this year, dragged down by a sharp drop in the price of gold and lower copper prices, along with growing uncertainty about the New Prosperity project.