Colin Arisman Tulsequah Chief

B.C. First Nations should require full clean-up costs up-front for mines: new study

While other jurisdictions like Quebec and Alaska require mines to post full remediation costs as a condition of approval, B.C. rules allow environmental liabilities from mining projects — which are often on Indigenous lands — to fall to the taxpayer

The First Nations Energy and Mining Council has added its voice to increasingly insistent calls for B.C. to toughen up mining rules and make polluters pay.

A newly released study, conducted for the council, recommends the province change rules to ensure mining companies post sufficient funds up-front to pay for cleanup and remediation of mining sites and the report recommends that, if the government will not act, First Nations should do it for them.

“If the British Columbia provincial government does not implement the … recommendations, Indigenous nations should require in-full and up-front financial assurance as a condition of their consent to mining projects,” the study says.

Alternatively, First Nations could negotiate full clean-up costs as part of impact and benefits agreements with mining companies, suggests economist Jason Dion, lead author of the report.

The demand is buoyed by B.C.’s commitment to implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the study says that requiring stringent financial assurances before mining projects can go ahead on Indigenous lands “would be fully in line with their rights as articulated in the UN Declaration.”

Robert Phillips, a member of the First Nations Mining and Energy Council, said government reaction to the report will indicate its commitment to UNDRIP.

“By accepting our recommendations, the B.C. government will be demonstrating that it is genuinely committed to not only mining reform, but also the spirit and principles of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act that is being passed by the Legislature,” Phillips said.

Another recently released report, from the B.C. Mining Law Reform Network is recommending that Indigenous-led groups should be given a larger role in overseeing mining projects approved on their lands.

Taxpayers on the hook for mine clean-up costs

Although mining companies are supposed to be liable for the costs of mine remediation in B.C., in reality, taxpayers are left on the hook for expensive clean-up of sites if a mining company goes broke because the province does not insist on up-front bonds in the form of cash or securities. 

Instead, pledges or guarantees based on the value of minerals are often accepted when the provincial Chief Inspector of Mines decides on the form of financial assurance.

That leaves B.C. taxpayers on the hook, with Auditor General Carol Bellringer estimating in her 2016 report that there is a $1.43 billion gap between the total cleanup liability of $2.79 billion and $1.36 billion held in financial assurance. Another report by the watchdog group MiningWatch Canada estimated the figure to be closer to $3 billion.

The expense of cleaning up mining messes, such as acid mine drainage, can be staggering. 

The Tulsequah Chief mine in northwest B.C. has been leaking acid mine drainage into a tributary of the Taku, a major Alaskan salmon-bearing river, for more than six decades and remediation costs are expected to be huge.

Water treatment at the Brittania Mine on Howe Sound costs B.C. $3 million annually in perpetuity and the Mount Polley disaster, which released 24 billion litres of contaminated mining waste into surrounding waterways after a tailings dam burst, has cost taxpayers $40 million  even though the company was found to be at fault and is still in business.

Unremediated mines often on Indigenous land

In addition to the financial burden on all British Columbians, the mess left behind by mining companies is often on Indigenous land.

“Environmental harm from unremediated mines can affect the ecosystems that Indigenous people rely on for sustenance and cultural uses. And it can harm the spiritual connections they have to the local land, water and wildlife,” says the report, adding that there are numerous examples of environmental damage from mines on Indigenous land.

“If the government is not prepared to put policies in place to protect our territories, we will implement them ourselves.”

Allen Edzerza, a member of the First Nations Mining and Energy Council and Tahltan Nation elder, said it is time for mining companies and government to change their approach.

“For too long we have watched mining companies disrespect the rights of First Nations in B.C. by polluting our water, threatening our salmon and damaging our land,” he said.

“That must now stop. If the government is not prepared to put policies in place to protect our territories, we will implement them ourselves,” he said.

The jade hunters on Tahltan land

B.C. mulls changes to mining rules

The provincial government has said it will release an updated policy for mine reclamation securities and the First Nation Energy and Mining Council is hoping the report will help inform those changes.

Government is looking at changes to the Mines Act and is talking to stakeholders about the Mineral Tenure Act, but Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, told The Narwhal last month there are troubling signs that B.C. might not join jurisdictions such as Quebec and Alaska in requiring 100 per cent bonding.

A spokesman for the Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Ministry said the ministry is considering feedback and, if the government chooses, a bill will be introduced next year.

The report recommends that B.C. should bring in a policy similar to Quebec, where the full, estimated cost of remediation is required within the first two years of a mine starting operations and it points out that the stringent requirements have not stifled the province’s mining industry.

“By bringing in stronger financial assurance requirements, British Columbia can reduce environmental risk and better protect taxpayers, while still benefiting from the jobs and income that mining generates,” Dion said.

Alaska, which only accepts full, solid financial assurances against the cost of mine remediation, also has a bond pool funded by companies, which covers the cost of remediation if a company fails to meet its obligations.

An example of the differences can be seen in security paid by Canadian mining giant Teck Resources for projects in Alaska and B.C.

Teck was required to pay full security for an estimated $560 million in reclamation costs for its Alaskan mine, but Teck’s five B.C. mines, which have been plagued with selenium pollution problems, have unsecured reclamation costs of $700 million.

For decades B.C. failed to address selenium pollution in the Elk Valley. Now no one knows how to stop it.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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