Six years after the Mount Polley disaster, B.C. and international regulatory organizations are still failing to make mining safe, according to several groups monitoring the industry.
“The Mount Polley disaster should have created a massive overhaul in rules and regulations to reduce risks to communities and watersheds, but it didn’t,” Nikki Skuce, director of Northern Confluence, an initiative based out of Smithers, B.C., that aims to improve land use decisions, told The Narwhal.
The safety of tailings dams in particular has been under intense scrutiny following the failure of the Mount Polley dam in central B.C., which sent 24 million cubic metres of contaminated mining waste into lakes and waterways, and the 2019 collapse of the Brumadinho dam in Brazil, which killed 270 people.
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Tailings are essentially mining leftovers. Ground-up rock and minerals, often infused with chemicals like cyanide, are mixed with large quantities of water and stored behind massive dams that are built over time with waste rock and sand. If a dam fails, the slurry moves extremely quickly over the landscape like a landslide or an avalanche.
After the Mount Polley disaster, a panel appointed to review the breach found that if mining companies are left to conduct “business as usual,” the province could face an average of two dam failures every 10 years.
The panel issued seven recommendations, but nearly six years later, many have not been implemented, according to a new report released by the First Nations Energy and Mining Council last week.
The B.C. government has made some important changes to the province’s mining legislation, but “significant reforms are still needed to ensure the health and safety of dozens of communities living downstream of existing or planned tailings dams,” the report said.
More large tailings dams proposed for northern B.C.
In addition to concerns about tailings dams, the report also found the need for improved financial assurance has not been addressed. This means that when a disaster occurs, a mine closes or the owner goes bankrupt, the public can be left holding the bill.
A report from B.C.’s chief inspector of mines earlier this year found the province has secured $1.6 billion in bonds from mining companies to cover reclamation costs, but estimated the total cost of reclamation at $2.8 billion — leaving B.C. taxpayers on the hook for $1.2 billion in mine cleanup.
The report by the First Nations Energy and Mining Council said more than 12 new mining projects have been proposed or are already under construction in northern B.C. alone. One of them is the KSM mine, which could become the largest open-pit gold and copper mine in North America.
If built, the KSM mine would have a tailings pond that holds 28 times the volume of Mount Polley’s and would be kept behind a 239-metre dam above an important salmon watershed.
Another contentious project is the Red Chris mine, owned and operated by Imperial Metals (the company responsible for Mount Polley), which holds seven times the volume of tailings as Mount Polley. The mine opened in late 2014 — just months after the Mount Polley mine spill — using the same tailings pond design as Mount Polley.
“If we actually implemented all the Mount Polley expert panel recommendations fully … we would go a long way to a more responsible mining regime in the province,” Skuce said.
Changes to B.C.’s Mines Act, introduced in July, could create a new chief permitting officer position, responsible for setting conditions that allow a mine to open and operate, while the chief inspector of mines would be responsible for health safety and enforcement. Previously, the two roles were combined and sometimes seen to be at odds.
If the legislation is passed, it will also strengthen investigations and mine audits to ensure mining regulations in B.C. are effective and aligned with global best practices, according to the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.
‘Consultation is not consent’
The First Nations Energy and Mining Council report also calls for better consultation with Indigenous Peoples.
David Chambers, a geoscientist and the author of the report, said that while the province does require consultation around design and construction of tailings facilities, the guidance doesn’t specify how that consultation is supposed to happen.
“This leaves a lot of room for interpretation,” he warned on a webinar last week about mine waste storage in B.C. “And it’s important to note that consultation is not consent.”
The Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake was one of many communities that was affected by the Mount Polley disaster. Former councillor and chief Bev Sellars said she doesn’t trust companies to consult in good faith.
“Resource companies use smoke and mirrors to justify their destruction of the environment,” she said on the webinar. “They fail to mention that once a mine is in existence, it will be there forever.”
Allen Edzerza, of the wolf clan T’logodena of the Tahltan Nation, worked in mines and mills for decades. He is now leading mining reform discussions with the province on behalf of the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council.
During the webinar, he said the Mount Polley disaster “opened up a dialogue between First Nations leadership and the B.C. government on mining law and mining reform.” But he warned that until Indigenous Rights and Title are truly respected, the province will see more vocal opposition to natural resource extraction projects.
“B.C. First Nations have inherent rights and title, which have been confirmed in the Supreme Court of Canada on many occasions,” he said. “Simply put, we have ownership and authority over our lands and resources.”
Global tailings standard to be released Tuesday
Canadians are not alone in their calls for stricter tailings dam regulations. After the Brumadinho disaster, international groups, including the United Nations Environment Programme, convened to conduct a Global Tailings Review, which will create a new international standard for tailings storage facilities.
The new standard is slated to be released Tuesday, but it is not expected to be binding.
In anticipation of the global standard, an international group of 142 scientists, communities and environment organizations — including Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada — released a report in June that recommended 16 guidelines to improve safety in global mining operations.
The recommendations included banning the construction of upstream dams, which are built up gradually throughout a mine’s life, with additional, higher dams built upstream of the last, on top of settled tailings. They are the cheapest and most common type of dam, but the unstable grounds they’re built upon put them at significant risk of failure, especially in areas prone to earthquakes or in wet climates.
The report also recommended banning new tailings dams built in close proximity to communities.
Upstream dams have been banned for years in Chile, Ecuador and Peru, and Brazil put a ban into place after Brumadinho. Mining reform groups like BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council say Canada should follow suit.
“We must do more to protect waters and communities from toxic mine waste,” Skuce said. “The B.C. government can, and must, do better.”
Updated at 10 a.m. on Aug. 8, 2020, to reflect the fact the KSM mine has been approved, but has not yet been built. The previous wording indicated the mine was still pending approval