Canada has more mine tailings spills than most other countries in the world, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which urges governments and the mining industry to improve safety, accountability and oversight.
During the last decade there have been seven known mine tailings spills in Canada, only one less than reported in China, which tops the list, says the report.
The UNEP assessment “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident” looks at 40 tailings accidents, including the 2014 Mount Polley disaster that saw 24 million cubic metres of sludge and mine waste flooding into nearby waterways.
It is estimated that, since 2008, mining waste failures have killed more than 340 people, damaged hundreds of kilometres of waterways, affected drinking water sources, wiped out fish populations, destroyed heritage sites and monuments and jeopardized the livelihoods of many communities.
And the documented disasters may not tell the whole story as there is no global database of mine sites and tailings storage facilities — something the report calls for.
“This is just a glimpse of what we know. A lot of the data is missing. We need an international database of mining spills and mining failures. If you don’t collect that solid data, you are not in the best position to correct the problems,” Ugo LaPointe of MiningWatch Canada told DeSmog Canada.
“We should be asking the regulators and the industry why no one on the planet is tracking spills and failures.”
The root of the problem is that environmental and human safety is not the first priority for mining operations, says the report, which recommends that regulators, industry and communities move to a “zero-failure objective” rather than focusing on the bottom line.
“The increasing number and size of tailings dams around the globe magnifies the potential environmental, social and economic cost of catastrophic failure impact and the risks and costs of perpetual management,” says the report.
“These risks present a challenge for this generation and, if not addressed now, a debt we will leave to future generations.”
Jessica Draker, Mining Association of Canada (MAC) communications director, said the organization wholeheartedly agrees with the United Nations call for a zero-failure objective.
“In fact, MAC and its members committed to a goal of zero catastrophic failures of tailings facilities and no significant adverse effects on the environment and human health well before the report was published,” she said.
MAC’s tailings management guide is recognized as leading the field globally, Draker said in an e-mailed response to questions.
After the Mount Polley mine disaster, MAC struck an independent task force — with 29 recommendations now being incorporated in the guidelines — and held a parallel internal review, Draker said.
“Next month MAC will release a revised Tailings Guide informed by these reviews,” she said.
The guide will incorporate recommendations by the Mount Polley expert panel, said Draker, adding that it is important to learn from mistakes such as Mount Polley.
The United Nations report does not speculate about why countries such as China and Canada have a high dam failure rate, but the data underlines that Canada is doing poorly, with almost 20 per cent of the documented failures, LaPointe said.
“The problem is that the industry is not yet acknowledging publicly that there are too many financially risky, marginal mines that are being permitted,” he said.
Marginal companies cut corners in safety, dam construction and monitoring and then do not have the financial capacity to ensure the safety of people and the environment around those sites, LaPointe said.
Alaska and Quebec demand large financial securities, paid up front, and other provinces should follow suit and consider the financial profile of each mine as one of the criteria for approval, LaPointe suggested.
“If we were to put the bar higher and require payment of financial securities ahead of permitting and ahead of mining, this would be one one way to get rid of the mines that would be marginal and you would end up with the mines that are safest,” he said.
A paper by researchers Lindsay Bowker and David Chambers, published this month in the journal Environments, draws the connection between economics and high failure of mining waste storage facilities and concludes that financially marginal mines push existing infrastructure beyond design capacity.
The paper estimates that between one third and one half of technically operating mines are no longer economically viable or never were viable.
However, regulators stand by passively, assuming production of the mines will resume and jobs will be retained, despite the flaws in infrastructure, it says.
“These are not assumptions supported by available data or expert economic analysis,” says the paper.
Meanwhile, B.C. is facing increasing criticism from Southeast Alaskans who say they do not trust B.C.’s regulation or oversight after the Mount Polley spill and decades of inaction on the Tulsequah Chief, which is leaking acid mine drainage into a tributary of one of Alaska’s major salmon rivers.
With up to 10 mines planned on the B.C. side of the border, Southeast Alaskan tribes, fishing organizations, local politicians and environmental groups are pushing for the U.S. federal government to step in and mediate water quality concerns.
“There aren’t currently any enforceable protections for Southeast salmon rivers should Canadian mine runoff impact water quality,” said Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Chairman Frederick Olsen Jr.
Among the concerns is the Red Chris mine, owned by Imperial Metals, which also owns Mount Polley. Despite recommendations by the Mount Polley expert panel for companies to move to dry tailings, Red Chris uses a tailings pond that has seven times the capacity of Mount Polley.