Highland Valley mine - Ken Gray2

B.C. has a growing mine waste problem. The risks could be catastrophic

As the province permits mines to hold more tailings slurry behind ever-growing dams, a new report finds the consequences of a failure grow in step. Climate change could make things even worse

Shaun Strobel is hoping for a healthy return of Sockeye salmon to B.C.’s Fraser River this August. He grew up fishing, joining his father who got his start in the former fishing village of Steveston, in Richmond, on the Fraser in the late 1970s. “I spent every summer from the time I was seven until 19 on board,” Strobel says. Today, he co-leads Skipper Otto, a community supported fishery made up of 40 different fishing families across B.C. and Nunavut. 

The Fraser River salmon runs have been the cornerstone of fisheries in B.C. for thousands of years, says Skipper Otto co-founder and CEO Sonia Strobel, also Shaun’s wife. “It can’t be overstated how significant the Fraser River salmon runs are to the economy in British Columbia, to ecosystems.” 

But that hasn’t stopped mining companies from building large tailings dams upstream from communities and critical salmon habitat on the Fraser, nor the government from approving them. And the situation is getting worse. A new report released by BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild, along with an interactive online map, illustrates how the consequences of a dam failure here could be catastrophic, potentially killing hundreds of people, destroying infrastructure and wiping out ecosystems. 

Shaun Strobel salmon fishing
Shaun Strobel has been salmon fishing on the Fraser River and B.C. coast since he was a child. Today he runs a community-based fishery and worries how a mine tailings release in the watershed could affect the river he, and many others, rely on. Photo: courtesy of Skipper Otto

“It’s an unthinkable disaster to think about toxic tailings flowing into the Fraser River into surrounding communities,” Sonia Strobel says. 

The major consequences of a tailings dam failure, though, aren’t limited to the Fraser River. The report, released today and titled Protecting Communities and Watersheds: Risks of Tailings Dam Failures in the Face of Climate Change, uses new analysis of 172 tailings dams at 75 different mining sites across B.C., and an additional 11 proposed sites. Tailings are crushed mining waste rock with anything desirable removed, and can contain trace heavy metals, selenium and sometimes toxins like arsenic or cyanide. The waste is typically watered down and stored in above ground facilities, retained by tailings dams. 

Currently, the province has enough liquid mining waste to fill one million Olympic-sized swimming pools —– and that’s expected to increase by 75 per cent with the 11 proposed new mines, according to the report. The analysis found the height of dams and volume of tailings in these storage facilities have been increasing exponentially. If these sites fail, the consequences could be catastrophic leading to loss of human life, damage to roads and infrastructure and the destruction of ecosystems like salmon watersheds.

Along with the report, BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild released an online interactive map showing mine sites across B.C. where tailings storage facilities are located or proposed.

“This is a scary situation going into the future,” says report author Steven Emerman, a geophysicist and expert in groundwater and mining. He found that over half of the existing tailings dam sites and almost all proposed sites will have high, very high or extreme consequences if they were to fail — meaning the water and tailings held back by the dam is released. Consequence ratings are assigned using a system established by the Canadian Dam Association. The rating looks at the potential loss of human life, critical habitats and infrastructure.  

“It means right now, we aren’t building tailings dams where fewer than 10 people could die if it fails,” Emerman says.

B.C. is building bigger, not better, when it comes to mine tailings storage

Emerman has evaluated proposed and existing tailings storage facilities around the world. He found dams in B.C. are being built bigger and holding more toxic waste from mining activity. It’s urgent that we stop building huge tailings dams for which the consequences of failure are extreme, Emerman says.

The Copper Mountain Mining Corporation, which owns its namesake mine outside Princeton, B.C., on the Similkameen River, is looking to nearly double the mine’s tailings capacity to 420 million cubic metres. In order to contain it, they want to increase the allowable height of the mine’s tailings dam from 192 metres to 255 metres — higher than the tallest skyscraper in Vancouver.

The height of the Copper Mountain tailings pond impoundment compared to the Mount Polley dam, which failed in 2014, and the Shangri-La, the tallest skyscraper in Vancouver. Graph: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

To the concern of downstream residents in B.C. and Washington state, the expansion could be approved without an environmental assessment. Don Strickland, chief operating officer for Copper Mountain, told The Narwhal in 2021 the proposed expansion, which would extend the mine’s lifespan by 21 years, does not meet provincial requirements for an environmental assessment. 

Instead, he said the expansion proposal will undergo “a very rigid permit review process,” which requires authorization from multiple provincial ministries.

The tailings facility is also built using the upstream dam method, which has 200 per cent more stability issues than other designs, according to the report. An upstream dam is progressively built on top of settled tailings and is cheaper to build as it uses less material. “There’s a really concerning combination of risk factors happening” ecologist and mining researcher at SkeenaWild Adrienne Berchtold says.

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In B.C., upstream dams are permitted, even though they’ve been banned in other countries like Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil after devastating collapses. In Brazil, the government has ordered mining companies to remove all tailings dams built this way.

Scientists and environmentalists have called for a ban on the construction of upstream dams for years. 

While the odds of failure are hard to calculate, it does happen. The Mount Polley mine disaster in 2014 released 25 billion litres of contaminated materials into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake after its tailings dam failed. The waste flowed into drinking water and major spawning grounds for sockeye salmon. Work is still being done to rebuild some of the fish habitat that was destroyed. 

That disaster also saw a call for meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities that could be affected by a failure at tailings facilities.

“We’ve seen the disasters of Mount Polley mine and other failures worldwide — now at an average of over 22 every decade — grossly impacting Indigenous communities, neighbouring communities and the land and watersheds they protect,” Loretta Williams, of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining, previously told The Narwhal.

“The free, prior and informed consent of local communities is essential to improving the safety of mine tailings storage,” she said.

Mount Polley Mine's tailings pond
Mount Polley Mine’s tailings pond and tailings pile. Production was ramped up at the Mount Polley mine before a tailings pond breached in 2014, causing one of B.C.’s worst environmental disasters. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Michael Goehring, president and CEO of the Mining Association of BC, told The Narwhal in an emailed statement that he had not reviewed a copy of the report yet but stated that mines in B.C. are governed by, “robust, science-driven laws and regulations from the initial stages of exploration through to decades after mine closure.”

Goehring pointed to Ministry of Mines internal audit released in 2021 that determined the province has, “one of the best tailings storage facility (TSF) regulatory frameworks in the world.” 

The audit included seven recommendations, “which the government accepted and is implementing” Goehring said. 

That audit, which was designed to assess whether the province is doing enough to prevent a repeat of the Mount Polley disaster, also found a lack of data, incomplete records and ambiguous regulations are undermining best practices when it comes to ensuring tailings facilities are effectively monitored and kept safe.

“Mining regulations are continuously being reviewed,” Goehring said. He offered the example of a group made up of industry, labour and First Nations members that meets regularly to measure B.C.’s Health, Safety and Reclamation Code against industry best practices for tailings storage facilities, and propose necessary changes.

Consequences of a failure in the Fraser River watershed could be massive

The Highland Valley Copper Mine is located in the Fraser River watershed on Nlaka’pamux Nation territory. It stores 1.2 billion cubic metres of tailings at one of its five storage facilities. That’s about 480,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to the analysis. The consequences of a failure at Highland Valley Copper sites are rated from low to extreme.

In the downstream district leading up to and including Hope, there are some 4,000 people living in the flood path or “inundation zone” of Highland Valley Copper, according to the company’s tailings storage facility operations, maintenance and surveillance manual. If there was a breach of their biggest tailings dam, the wave of wastewater could be approximately 25 to 30 metres deep and flood an estimated 1,680 homes in Hope alone. But the impacts wouldn’t necessarily stop there.

Highland Valley mine tailings storage
The recent report finds that a tailings dam failure at Highland Valley Copper mine, in the Fraser River watershed, has one of the worst potential outcomes in B.C. in terms of lives lost. Photo: Ken Gray

“In the event of a complete facility failure, these tailings could be released into the lower Fraser River, potentially impacting communities downstream such as Abbotsford, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Delta, Richmond, Surrey and Vancouver,” reads a primer of BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild’s report. 

“This example of the Highland [tailings storage facility] is one of B.C.’s worst cases, if not the worst case, for failure consequences in terms of lives lost,” Berchtold explained in an email to The Narwhal.

A spokesperson for Teck Resources, owner of Highland Valley Copper mine, told The Narwhal that there is, “daily monitoring and inspection, internal and external audits and independent third-party expert reviews,” of the tailings storage facility. The spokesperson, Dale Steeves, said all of Teck’s “tailings facilities are operated and maintained to meet global best practices for safety.”

The most recent annual report for Teck facilities confirmed they are stable and secure, he added.

Teck hasn’t reviewed BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild’s recent report but said communities living near the Highland Valley Copper mine site have participated in emergency planning exercises and detailed information about their facilities is available online.

But the true risk of a tailings dam failure in B.C. is unknown, Berchtold says. While the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation has done a lot of work to improve access to information, she says there’s still a lack of transparency. When Berchtold and the team were collecting information for the report and an interactive map of mine sites and consequence levels across B.C., information was hard to find and not consistently reported. “There was a lot of digging that we had to do, just to figure out these basic risk factors of different facilities.”

There is no information on why a facility has a certain consequence category, Berchtold says. The rating is based on the potential loss of life, environmental damage and economic damage if the site was to fail. “But they don’t tell you, ‘this facility is rated extreme because it will kill more than 100 people if it fails.’ “

“I think we deserve to know whether a facility received a very high or an extreme failure consequence rating, because there’s a permanent population at risk of being killed,” Berchtold says.

Tailings dam safety even more precarious due to climate change, report says

The climate crisis also adds to the questionable future of B.C. tailings dams. With more extreme and more frequent weather events, infrastructure could be at greater risk of failure if we don’t take climate change into account in designs. 

There need to be additional safety factors built into mine tailings dam designs to account for extreme weather events, says Jamie Kneen, of MiningWatch Canada. “An atmospheric river that’s going to dump a metre of rain on you all of a sudden is going to require some real safeguards in the design that maybe wouldn’t have been there previously.”

Last November, southwest B.C. was hit hard with extreme rain, “atmospheric rivers” and flooding. When the Nooksack River overflowed and breached its dyke, the floodwaters filled what is now known as the Sumas Prairie and parts of Abbotsford. It was one of Canada’s largest flooding disasters. Thousands of livestock died and an estimated 15,000 people were evacuated from their homes. The toxic water spread through nearby communities contaminated with human and animal waste, asbestos, oil and gas.

Eight months later, debris is still being cleaned up

B.C. flooding atmospheric river
The B.C. government declared a state of emergency last November as severe flooding caused by an atmospheric river cut off all access routes into cities and towns. Photo: B.C. Government / ​​Flickr

According to the report, the heavily populated Fraser River basin is predicted to see more frequent and more intense atmospheric river events as a result of climate change. That area alone is home to more than one-third of all of the mine sites across the province, with 27 operating or proposed mines.

“People need to be aware of the risks upstream,” and the heavy metal contamination that can come with that, Kneen says.  

Goehring, of B.C.’s mining association, said tailings storage facilities “are already required to be built to withstand extreme events, such as the atmospheric rivers and heat dome B.C. has recently experienced.” For Highland Valley Copper’s part, Steeves said the mine’s tailings facility “is designed and operated to account for climate change, including capacity to store the probable maximum flood, which is greater than a 10,000-year period event.”

In addition to current and proposed mines across the province, there are 57 sites that are closed or sites that have tailings facilities that need to be maintained. “A tailings dam can never be demolished because it has to confine those tailings forever,” Emerman says. They need to be inspected, monitored and maintained to prevent failure.

And because it’s impossible to build something that will last forever, “it means that at some point in the future … the tailings dam is going to fail,” Emerman says. He questions the value of a mine site that might be productive for a few years but leave a tailings dam facility that will have to be maintained in perpetuity.

With tailings dams increasing in size and potentially being built on mountains or in the headwaters of major rivers, it’s important that these projects are done right or not at all, Kneen says. “I think the bottom line is that if it can’t be designed and constructed safely, then it should not be allowed to happen.”

“The pace to open new mines is just overwhelming,” Emerman says. “That’s a very dangerous situation where people are in a big rush to do something very risky. My basic recommendation is people need to slow down and stop and think.”

BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild are making a number of recommendations with the release of the report. They’re calling on the province to commit to reducing B.C.’s tailings storage facilities by half — a recommendation that was made nearly a decade ago by the Mount Polley Expert Panel. They’re asking for clear direction on how to manage closed sites that need ongoing inspection, monitoring and maintenance to reduce the consequences of failure. They’re also calling for a ban on all upstream tailings dam construction and for future sites to be built with lower failure consequences or not built at all. 

A tailings pit and dam at the Red Chris mine in northwest B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

A matter of mining versus salmon along the Fraser River

Populations of sockeye heading for the Fraser River have decreased, but survived years of threats. “There was always fishing in the Fraser River,” Shaun Strobel recalls. “Every single year and up and down the coast … and it was always lots of fish coming in.” 

He says he used to be able to fish from June through October. Now he’s just waiting to see what this August will bring. A mine might be productive for a few years, but the salmon run has an intrinsic value for people along the Fraser River, he says. 

“We work so hard to fish sustainably,” Sonia Strobel says. “One catastrophic failure of a tailings dam could wipe this out permanently … and it’s painful and tragic to think about that.”

“It can’t be overstated how devastating that possibility is and how important it is that policymakers, lawmakers, all levels of government, municipal, provincial, Indigenous, federal, are all working together in unity around protecting those communities and preventing this kind of disaster.”

Updated July 14, 2022, at 10:07 a.m. PST: This story has been updated to clarify that the group tasked with reviewing B.C.’s Health, Safety and Reclamation Code includes First Nations members and labour representatives, as well as industry.

Updated on July 15, 2022, at 11:33 p.m PST: this story was updated to correct the number of people in the direct flood path of Highland Valley Copper mine as approximately 4,000, rather than 3,600, which is for the town of Hope, B.C., only. The number of people evacuated during the flooding in southwestern B.C. was also updated to an estimated 15,000 from 3,300, which is for Abbotsford alone.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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