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Cost of Abandoned, Contaminated Mine Sites in B.C. $508 Million, Up 83 Per Cent Since 2014

Costs associated with the closure and reclamation of 84 abandoned industrial sites, mostly from mining, in B.C. have increased to $508 million, according to new information released from the Crown Contaminated Sites Program.

Responsibility for the sites has fallen to the province because the owners or operators of the projects “no longer exist,” according to a provincial press release.

The estimated cleanup costs have grown by $231 million since 2014, representing an increase of 83.4 per cent, watchdog group MiningWatch notes.

According to the province, a number of the mines, like the Britannia Mine near Squamish, or the Bralorne-Takla Mine in northern B.C., that now present a risk to human and enviornmental health, operated before 1969 when modern environmental legislation was created.

Although the province is quick to highlight work done over the past two years to clean up contaminated sites, Ugo Lapointe from MiningWatch says the significant growth in overall liability signals an urgent need for reform in the mining sector.

“Almost two years after the Mount Polley mine disaster, multiple cases of environmental mismanagement, and exponentially growing costs to clean up contaminated mine sites at taxpayers’ expense, it’s about time the B.C. government starts ‘walking the talk’ on desperately needed reforms in the province’s mining sector,” Lapointe said.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg, as yesterday’s report indicates that only 18 of 84 identified sites have been remediated to date, 16 are still under investigation, and 48 more are categorized as ‘lower priority’ and have yet to cleaned up. About 90 per cent of these sites are mining sites.”

Lapointe said at current rates it will take B.C. 64 years to clean up the remaining sites.

Polluter-Pays System a Failure in B.C.

In May B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer issued a scathing report that criticized B.C.’s weak mining liability regime. Bellringer estimated the province’s mining operations carried a $1 billion liability shortfall that ultimately falls onto taxpayer shoulders.

Economist Robyn Allan followed up on that report with a new analysis that showed, when combined with underfunded mining reclamation costs, the liability ballooned to $1.5 billion.

B.C. claims a polluter-pays system is in place for mines: “The Environmental Management Act ensures that those that pollute are held responsible under a polluter pay principle so the taxpayer does not have to assume these clean-up costs.”

Although, according to Robyn Allan, that claim is misleading.

“This statement is not true from the perspective of protecting human health and the environment, nor is it true that polluters are paying for the damage they cause,” Allan told DeSmog Canada. “The polluter pay principle is not working in B.C. For the polluter pay principle to work, polluters must pay for the damage they create. Instead, we find time and again, that it is taxpayers who are paying, or else much of the damage mining companies have caused is going unaddressed.”

Allan’s recent report detailed “decades of neglect in compliance and enforcement activities” within the B.C. Ministry of Mines and the Ministry of Environment.

“The regulators are not protecting the environment from substantial harm or protecting taxpayers from bearing extensive financial cost to fix it,” Allan told DeSmog Canada.

She added the province has standards in place, but doesn’t do enough to ensure the protection of human health or the environment. Both the Snipgold Johnny Mine and Chieftan Metal’s Tulsequah Chief Mine are prime examples of a failed compliance and regulatory system in B.C.

Allan added financial failure in the mining sector, especially in relation to coal, increases these concerns. The collapse of Walter Energy, which Allan outlines in her report, will likely lead to water contamination at the company’s coal mine in northern B.C., Allan said, “because the company was not required to post full financial security” and “is now under bankruptcy protection.”

Allan added a similar situation could unfold with Teck Resources that could see “taxpayers picking up billions of dollars of reclamation and water treatment costs in the Elk Valley in the future.”

“The polluter doesn’t pay if the polluter becomes unable or unwilling,” Allan said. “This is why it is imperative that a fully secured financial assurances system with accurate estimates of reclamation costs and responsibilities be introduced as soon as possible.”

Underfunded Liability Concerns Alaskans Downstream of B.C. Mines

B.C. has at least 10 new mines planed or proposed for northwest B.C., many located above salmon-spawning rivers that travel directly into Southeast Alaska.

Weak regulations, limited liability and a lack of mining oversight has Alaskans living downstream of the mine sites worried another Mount Polley-style disaster will negatively affect local tourism operations and salmon populations.

Concerns over the recent increase in mining activity in northwest B.C. were heightened with the approval of the Red Chris Mine, located in the Iskut and Stikine watersheds. The Red Chris Mine is owned and operated by Imperial Metals, the same company responsible for the Mount Polley mine disaster which sent an estimated 25 million cubic metres of mining waste into the pristine waters of Quesnel Lake nearly two years ago.

The majority of that mining waste, which contains mercury and arsenic, remains on the bottom of Quesnel Lake. No charges or fines were issued in response to the Mount Polley incident.

Recently Alaska’s Congressional Delegation asked Secretary of State John Kerry to step in to protect Alaskan interests from B.C.’s mining boom.

In a letter to Kerry, the delegation wrote, “Alaskans need to have every confidence that mining activity in Canada is carried out just as safely as it is in our state. Yet, today, that confidence does not exist.”

“Should there be an impact to the transboundary waters that flow from Canada to Alaska, our state’s fisheriestourism and native peoples could all be hurt.”

“Clearly, this program has not been a priority for the B.C. government and nothing in the report indicates that this will change in the future. Nor is there anything to indicate that the B.C. government will seriously enforce the ‘polluter-pays’ principle so that the industry pays for the mess it created,” Lapointe said.

“That’s a shame, because at the end of the day, it’s B.C. taxpayers who will be left with a bigger hole in their pocket to clean up the mess.”

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We hear it time and time again:
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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).

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