Peterson Creek Park Peter Olsen The Narwhal

Aging Ajax mine leaching arsenic, selenium into creek near Kamloops, B.C.

A lack of monitoring of contamination in Peterson Creek demonstrates the province’s need for mining reform and ‘polluter pays’ rules, critics say

A small creek that meanders through the hills above Kamloops is increasingly polluted with mine effluent running from 50-million tonnes of waste rock around the old Ajax mine, a new report has found.

Pollution from substances such as arsenic, selenium and molybdenum mean the water in Peterson Creek exceeds B.C.’s Water Quality Guidelines, but monitoring of the contamination is “woefully inadequate and ambiguous” according to the report by hydrogeologist Kevin Morin of the Minesite Drainage Assessment Group.

The report concludes outdated and deficient permit requirements lead to wrong interpretations and conclusions and “do not explain the dramatic increasing contamination of Peterson Creek by minesite-derived elements.”

Kamloops Area Preservation Society, which commissioned the report, has sent a lawyer’s letter to the province asking that measurements of creek flows and chemistry be changed from twice a year to monthly and saying surrounding monitor wells should be included in the testing. There will be no ministry response until after the election.

Peterson Creek and the nearby aquifer serve as a water source for the Knutsford Knoll development, Kamloops RV Campground and several homes. The water is also used by ranchers and wildlife and Peterson Creek Park is a popular recreation site.

The permit for measuring pollution is held by KGHM Ajax Mining Inc., which attempted to reopen and expand the mine, but the plan was denied an environmental certificate by the provincial government in 2017 and rejected by the federal government in 2018 after reviews concluded the $1.3-billion project would cause significant adverse environmental effects and would affect Indigenous land usage.

The plan for a massive open pit mine, close to homes, with a dam sitting above the city, was fiercely opposed by many Kamloops residents and was rejected by the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation and the municipality.

Coincidentally, the Peterson Creek pollution report was released as KGHM partner, Abacus Mining and Exploration Corp., announced that KGHM has hired a new Ajax superintendent for the area. According to a statement from Abacus, the company will be consulting with First Nations and the community in an effort to revive the project.

The pollution in Peterson Creek is running from waste created both historically and between 1989 and 1997 when a subsidiary of Teck Resources mined copper, gold and silver.

Morin found that contaminated water from the mine waste is entering the aquifer and continuing into Peterson Creek, which runs into the Thompson River, and monthly measurements, monitoring and analysis is needed. The water should be compared with water quality guidelines for drinking, irrigation, wildlife and aquatic life, he recommended.

Concentrations of contamination in the creek above the mine site are low, but, downstream from the mine, concentrations rise dramatically, meaning the water should not be drunk or used for irrigation and could harm aquatic and wildlife.

Kamloops Area Preservation Society spokesperson Paula Pick said everyone in the area should be concerned about the increasing pollution “but especially people directly using water from the creek and its aquifer.”

Jill Calder of Kamloops Physicians for a Healthy Environment Society echoed the concerns, especially as the nearest home is only about 1,200 metres from the mine site.

Plans are also underway to build a new subdivision, with up to 1,600 new homes, close to the site.

“I’m concerned that these particular substances — all the long list of by-products from the tailings ponds — are known to cause health hazard risks,” Calder told The Narwhal.

The toxic remnants of mining operations and unsafe tailings ponds are a growing concern, not only in Kamloops, but around the world, Calder said.

“There’s a lot of concern the mines responsible for them do not have the financial solvency to do an exit plan in the way they proposed to decommission the mine,” she said.

Don Barz, member of the Kamloops Area Preservation Society, who lives about four kilometres from the mine site, is not surprised that Morin found mine waste polluting Peterson Creek.

“Perhaps this is the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

“We want to see more monitoring because the information we do have is data that the mining company has had to (produce) and based on what their sampling results show there are high levels of toxic elements … We need to have a better scientific understanding of what is going on up there so we can better assess the impacts on aquatic life,” he told The Narwhal.

Peterson Creek is small, but it is critical for wildlife as, during the summer when water sources dry up, there are no other creeks in the area, Barz said.

“For wildlife this is it, so if it gets polluted, it has a big localized impact and, because it is such a small creek there is very little dilution,” he said.

Carman-Anne Schulz of the Sagebrush Neighbourhood Association said 10 years work has gone into removing garbage and invasive weeds from Peterson Creek Park.

“It is shocking to learn that the creek is being polluted by the Ajax mine,” she said.

Morin said in an interview that problems with monitoring stretch back to the 1970s when the effect of mine waste on the aquifer was not considered even though most pollution from groundwater travels underground rather than on the surface water.

“It’s only about four years ago that British Columbia finally came up with groundwater protection regulations. That was the first time groundwater was recognized as a resource like trees, air and surface water,” Morin said.

“The old attitude was out-of-sight, out-of-mind. You can contaminate it, but just let it go into the ground and that was what the original permit was saying in 1976,” he said.

That permit allowed 25 cubic metres a day to go into the ground, without any checks on the quantity or quality, Morin said.

The permit has been amended several times, but now needs to be scrapped and rewritten, he said.

“It’s like sewing an old, favourite piece of clothing. After a while, the patches are going to break down and it just doesn’t work any more,” he said.

Morin predicts that, once the election is over, the ministry is likely to prioritize rewriting the permit.

“I think that, now they have hydrogeologists and a groundwater protection regulation, the ministry will look at this and say ‘wow, this permit has to be rewritten from scratch because it really doesn’t do what it has to do,’ ” he said.

The first step is to gather information and figure out the severity of the contamination and where it is going, Morin said, who expects that further action will then be necessary.

“One example would be to put in pump wells between the old mine site and the creek and then pump the water so you are pumping the contaminated water out of the ground, out of the aquifer and keep it from getting into the creek and they would then have to send it to a treatment plant,” Morin said.

“But, before the Environment Ministry could say ‘you have to do something’ they have to have the evidence and the permit does not give them the evidence that they need,” he said.

The Peterson Creek contamination illustrates the need for B.C. to beef up its mining regulations, said Ugo Lapointe of Mining Watch Canada.

“This is clearly another example of why B.C. should strengthen its mining laws and oversight to ensure mine waste dumps do not put communities and watersheds at risk and make sure mining companies pay to clean up their mess. Right now, they don’t,” Lapointe said.

The NDP government has moved to tighten up the Mines Act, but there is still a shortfall of at least $1.2 billion between what it will cost to clean up mine sites and security held by the province.

Nikki Skuce, director of Northern Confluence, said the B.C. Mining Law Reform Network is advocating for full bonding for mine reclamation within the first three years of operation.

“However, the Ajax mine never got operating, so nothing’s been collected for that site,” Skuce said.

B.C. still does not have legislation to ensure the polluter pays although, technically, the Chief Inspector of Mines can use the reclamation bond to have a high risk issue dealt with immediately, Skuce said.

“But, again, that probably doesn’t apply to an old site and a proposed mine where no bond or financial assurances exist,” she said.

In its election platform released this week, the B.C. NDP stated it would make “polluters pay for cleanup of abandoned projects.”

The province was aware in November 2019, from data filed by the company, that KGHM was out of compliance with the permit, but it is not known whether any action was taken.

“Too often, permit conditions are amended so that companies are then in compliance … versus forcing the company into compliance with the original conditions,” Skuce said.

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