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B.C.’s mineral resources are sought after to support the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but the province’s mining rules and regulations — some of which date back to the 1800s — have left a patchwork of dangerous and polluting mines across the province, according to a new report released Monday by SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and the BC Mining Law Reform Network.
The report highlights 12 operating, closed and proposed mines in B.C. that are either currently polluting or have high potential to do so.
“We agree to environmental harms when we agree to mining, but they can be better regulated and we can have measures in place so that communities and watersheds are less at risk,” Nikki Skuce, director of Northern Confluence and co-founder of the BC Mining Law Reform Network, said in an interview.
The dozen mines featured in the report were chosen based on criteria including existing or likely environmental impacts, management of contaminants including contaminated waste and inadequate funding for reclamation. While the report calls attention to numerous problems with how the province currently oversees the mining industry, it also highlights the potential for solutions.
“We hope the report raises awareness and we hope that the government takes action to start implementing some solutions,” Skuce said, adding that the province recently committed to ensuring that all proponents of large industrial projects are held financially responsible so taxpayers aren’t left on the hook for cleaning up abandoned projects. But Skuce cautioned that the province needs to do more to reduce environmental impacts and eliminate the violation of Indigenous Rights.
“Given [the province’s] interest to promote themselves as a responsible mining jurisdiction, they need to ensure that they are implementing the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People when it comes to mining,” she said.
The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation did not respond to an interview request.
Teck’s Elk Valley mining operations in southeast B.C. recently earned the coal giant a $60 million fine for selenium and calcite contamination of the Fording River, a tributary of the Elk River. As The Narwhal recently reported, the pollution persists and with major expansions to the company’s operations planned or underway, the problems will likely increase.
“At this point, it has gotten so bad that [Teck’s] management goal is just to stabilize the level of pollution in downstream waters, not even to reduce it,” Adrienne Berchtold, lead author of the report, told The Narwhal in an interview.
“In terms of solutions, it’s kind of a tough one because they are so deep into this problem and it’s an expensive fix to try and develop these technologies that don’t even exist yet,” she said, adding that at the very least, the company should not be permitted to expand its operations until a solution is found.
Teck is also short by more than $500 million in estimated reclamation costs, according to the 2019 Chief Inspector of Mines annual report.
“Were Teck to default in any way on those expenses, that massive price tag would fall to the taxpayers,” Berchtold said. “That’s clearly a huge problem that needs to be addressed.”
In 2019, the province gave permission to Gibraltar mine, a massive open-pit copper mine in central B.C., to increase its tailings effluent discharge into the Fraser River to around 24 million litres daily between November and April, a decision bitterly contested by the Tsilhqot’in Nation, which is concerned about the impacts to salmon and endangered white sturgeon populations.
The Taseko-owned mine has been operating since 1972 and has never undergone environmental assessment, according to the report. The mine has also expanded its operating size, but the province has yet to revise the estimated cost of reclamation.
On March 22, 2021, the company received a non-compliance report from the province’s environmental protection division for unauthorized discharge of contaminated water. Berchtold explained the mine’s problem is its tailings facility has a surplus of water, which it has to discharge somewhere.
“At the very least, Taseko could build a water treatment plant to at least improve the quality of this excess water they have on site that they have to release somewhere in the receiving environment.”
Like Gibraltar, the Copper Mountain mine, located just south of the town of Princeton, never underwent environmental assessment, according to the report. The mine currently discharges 60 litres per second of treated wastewater into the Similkameen River, which flows south across the border into critical habitat for steelhead and salmon, including endangered chinook salmon populations.
As well as its treated wastewater discharges, the mine is leaking contaminated water at a rate of 54 litres per second, or 4.6 million litres per day. As The Narwhal recently reported, the province slapped the company with a $51,000 fine last November for exceeding discharge limits and unauthorized discharges. The mine continues to receive non-compliance orders, including two issued in March.
The company has a proposed expansion currently under review that, if approved, would increase the height of its tailings dam to 255 metres, over six times the height of the Mount Polley dam.
“It’s an earthen dam and the consequences of it failing are already extreme and obviously with the expansion, those risks get astronomical,” Berchtold said.
The report noted that given the mine’s history of environmental impacts and the risks associated with the expansion, the province should require an environmental assessment before deciding whether to approve or reject the plan. Berchtold added that given the mine’s abysmal track record of non-compliance, the province should consider rejecting any expansions.
“We’re suggesting that they should consider denying those future authorizations to these companies that have poor records of environmental and social responsibility.”
Three coal mines in northeast B.C. owned by Conuma Coal Resources currently operate in the middle of endangered caribou habitat. Mining activity in the region has contributed to the decline of the species through habitat loss and fragmentation. Wolverine mine is poised to expand its operations, which will impact Saulteau and West Moberley First Nations’ recovery plans for the iconic species.
“This is a clear example of situations in which the way the industry is regulated really promotes industrial development at the expense of conservation and First Nations’ interests,” Berchtold said. She noted that the usual justification for developing mines doesn’t add up here.
“A lot of the time, the reason that these mines go ahead is because they’re supposed to stimulate the economy, create jobs and bring in money,” she said, referring to a recent report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives that used Conuma’s three coal mines in the Peace River region to illustrate how that’s not always the case.
“This report shows that they actually don’t do that. The costs, such as possible extinction of caribou, really don’t outweigh the benefits that are promised — because they’re over promised.”
Mount Polley is the poster child for catastrophic mining impacts to the environment. In 2014, the mine’s tailings dam failed and around 25 million cubic metres of contaminated material spilled into a salmon watershed. After the event, an independent panel investigated the disaster and made a series of recommendations to the province, of which only a handful have been implemented, according to a recent analysis by the First Nations Energy and Mining Council.
The mine’s owner, Imperial Metals, has never been fined for the ecological disaster, which continues to impact spawning sockeye salmon populations.
When the auditor general released a damning report of the province’s failure to adequately monitor and enforce the mining industry, it noted that Sable Resources, the former owner of a small gold mine in northwest B.C., remained in non-compliance for months despite repeated warnings issued by inspectors.
The Shasta-Baker mine, now owned by TDG Gold, went into care and maintenance in 2012 — meaning it’s not currently operating but nor is it completely closed. Berchtold said mines in care and maintenance are low priority for the owners.
“They’re just sort of on pause,” Berchtold said. “If they’re not making money, then the owners aren’t really that invested. And that’s why they’ve gone into care and maintenance in the first place is because they’re not economically viable.”
The report noted the mine poses significant risks to the surrounding environment and to the plant and animal resources the Takla First Nation rely on for subsistence and cultural purposes, and the extent of those risks and potential pollution is largely unknown.
“They’ve got a laundry list of environmental monitoring and management plans and tailings facility management plans that were due to the government [in 2012] that still have not been submitted,” Berchtold said. “They haven’t been performing water quality monitoring, they haven’t been performing any kind of comprehensive environmental monitoring.”
A 2017 dam inspection and subsequent report recommended that the tailings facility be permanently closed and highlighted risks associated with delaying, noting that the site doesn’t have a backup plan to prevent the tailings from spilling into the environment in storm events.
“Their tailings facility is built with upstream dam construction, which is really risky,” Berchtold said, explaining the mine is a prime candidate for the province to live up to its goal of reducing the number of high-risk tailings facilities by stepping in and ordering the final closure.
A little mine in the far northwest corner of B.C. has been polluting the Tulsequah River, a tributary of the Taku River, for over 60 years. The Tulsequah Chief mine has a long history of multiple owners failing to clean up the pollution problems. The most recent owner is Chieftain Metals, a company that declared bankruptcy in 2016. The province has started the process to clean up the site and permanently close it, but the work is hampered by court proceedings as one of Chieftain’s creditors, West Face Capital, attempts to recoup its losses.
The province has not said who will pay the estimated $48 million upfront reclamation costs (not to mention tens of millions of dollars in water treatment and monitoring costs over the next 100 years) and mining critics often cite the mine as perfect example of why the province needs to ensure mining companies are held financially responsible from the outset.
On Banks Island, south of Prince Rupert on Gitxaala First Nation territory, an abandoned gold mine continues to leak contaminants into a wetland, which then drains into the surrounding marine environment. Yellow Giant mine was formerly owned by Banks Island Gold, a company that declared bankruptcy in 2016 after the province discovered it had been intentionally dumping waste into creeks, lakes and wetlands on the island.
“It was a bit of a wild west mentality, where they were on this island and no one was really overseeing them,” Berchtold said. “They didn’t receive any inspections for over a year after getting their permits to begin operating and in that time they just broke the rules.”
The project never received an environmental assessment as its intended production did not meet provincial thresholds to trigger that process.
“They ensured that their production threshold was just under the limit that would have triggered environmental assessment,” she said. “It’s a good example of why environmental assessments should be performed on all mines.”
At Glencore’s closed Bell and Granisle mines on Lake Babine in northwest B.C., the province permits the company to discharge untreated water at one of its discharge sites with copper concentrations that are on average 20 times higher than the provincial guidelines for the protection of aquatic life and nearly 250 times higher than the threshold for negative effects on salmon, according to a recent report published by SkeenaWild and Lake Babine Nation.
As The Narwhal recently reported, the lake supports about 90 per cent of all Skeena sockeye salmon and the company is not monitoring its impacts on the species.
The true nature of Anyox is something of a mystery. The long-abandoned copper mine, located on Nisga’a territory near Stewart, operated between 1914 and 1936. The province recently told The Narwhal in an emailed statement that the site has known acid rock drainage issues, which is toxic to fish and other aquatic life.
According to the report, during its operations the mine and its on-site smelter dumped its waste directly into the ocean.
Berchtold said the lack of information about Anyox is a problem she encountered with numerous abandoned mines across the province when researching the extent of mining-related pollution.
“There were almost a third of them that I couldn’t find any information on, and Anyox is one of them,” she said. “There are certainly no publicly available government records about the mine. We are just pushing for more transparency and obviously some action.”
Seabridge Gold received an environmental assessment certificate in 2014 for its proposed KSM mine in northwest B.C. If built, the mine would have a tailings facility that would hold 2.3 billion tonnes of covered tailings — above two important salmon watersheds.
“The proposed volume of their tailings facilities is just mind bending,” Berchtold said.
According to the report, the potential impacts to the Unuk River watershed — which is a transboundary river flowing from B.C. to Alaska — include elevated selenium. Berchtold said the transboundary issue puts the downstream communities in an unfair position.
“The people who are going to experience the impacts are barely involved in development and permitting of the project itself,” she said.
The so-called “Doughnut Hole” in southern B.C. is a pocket of land surrounded by provincial parks. The area is home to at-risk species including spotted owls, grizzly bears and chinook salmon.
Imperial Metals, the mining company responsible for the Mount Polley disaster, owns mineral tenures on the land and is planning to conduct exploratory work. As The Narwhal reported in 2019, the plans are being met with fierce opposition on both sides of the border.
Read more: ‘The border is this imaginary line’: why Americans are fighting mining in B.C.’s ‘Doughnut Hole’
Berchtold said given the high-profile nature of the opposition, she doesn’t expect a mine will ever be built but the conflict is an apt illustration of the need for reforms to provincial legislation.
“There aren’t any opportunities in the Mineral Tenure Act as it stands right now for mineral tenures to be retired, or to expire in some way,” she said. “It really makes it clear how industry is prioritized over other land uses, like conservation, and over First Nations Rights and Title.”
Updated at May 19, 2021, at 9:25 a.m. PT: This article has been updated to clarify that at-risk steelhead and salmon habitat threatened by the Copper Mountain mine is in the Okanagan-Columbia watershed not the Similkameen River itself as previously reported.
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