BC archives rossland d-03651_141

A community transformed from mining town to resort destination. It doesn’t want to go back

There’s a political push to dig up minerals deemed critical for a low-carbon economy. But residents in Rossland, B.C., are resisting a new mine

Melanie Mercier has a yearly tradition of mountain biking the Seven Summits trail near Rossland, B.C. It’s a 30-kilometre, singletrack ride through rocky terrain and blueish-green grass fields. The trail cuts through an area known as Record Ridge, and at different times of the year, speckles of reds, yellows or blues of bitterroot, larkspur, paintbrush and swale desert-parsley dot the landscape. As Mercier gets higher in elevation, she catches glimpses of bright green wolf lichen growing on mature fir trees and the pastel hues of stringy hair lichen blowing in the wind. People travel from all over the world for the technical and physical challenge of this ride. For Mercier, this is home.

But this year the ride was filled with mixed emotions. Just off the trail — and a few kilometres from her home — a resource company is hoping to start an open-pit mine just outside of Rossland.

West High Yield (W.H.Y.) Resources is applying to open a magnesium mine in an area known as Record Ridge, approximately five kilometres north of the U.S-Canada border. The Calgary-based company is waiting on the B.C. government to determine the next steps, including whether the project will require a provincial environmental assessment, which can put limits on projects or, in some rare cases, stop them altogether. 

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The company has been active in the area for almost two decades, West High Yield Resources’ director, Barry Baim, told The Narwhal. But now the company sees a new opportunity. “The paradox of modern mining,” Baim said, stems from the juxtaposition of the industry’s environmental footprint with society’s desire to increase electrification to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Baim is referring to the push from industry and government to dig up minerals deemed critical to building a lower-carbon economy. For an energy transition, the federal government says these minerals are needed to build things like batteries, electric cars and solar panels. Magnesium is one of 31 critical minerals listed by the federal government. It’s used for alloys in cars, aircrafts and wind turbines as well as in consumer goods like laptops and cameras.

As the global demand for magnesium continues to climb, West High Yield Resources wants to get in on the action. Meanwhile, many community members are raising concerns about what they know so far and the possibility the project might not undergo an environmental assessment. 

“We’ve been working together to do everything we can to stop this project from happening,” Mercier told The Narwhal. She’s part of the Save Record Ridge Action Committee, a group of 11 people who live in the area who want to protect the environment and raise awareness about the project. 

The committee is worried about the destruction of critical habitat for species like the threatened mountain holly fern and the impact on tourism and recreation. They also accuse the company of a lack of genuine consultation with residents and First Nations. Through petitions, lobbying efforts and presentations to city council, the group has raised questions about the different scales West High Yield Resources has used to describe the project, the provincial environmental assessment process, the qualifications of technical experts hired by the company and a perceived lack of transparency in reclamation plans. 

The proposed location of the project is on a complex, unique and rare grassland ecosystem. Mercier is skeptical reclamation could restore the area. She’s a geologist and horticulturist who says it would take years to collect seeds from the unique plants and germinate them to ensure the area could be properly reclaimed. “You can’t go buy [these plants] at the garden centre at Canadian Tire.”   

Residents in Rossland are at the centre of a paradox as West High Yield Resources’ Record Ridge proposed magnesium project pushes ahead. As the demand for minerals used in low-carbon technologies is expected to grow exponentially — and as B.C. vies to be a key player in the growing global supply — what happens here could set the stage for other communities. 

Long a mining town, Rossland is now a tourism hub 

Mining created the community of Rossland, in the west Kootenay region of south-central B.C., in the 1890s when the town was at the heart of B.C.’s gold rush. Rossland was incorporated in 1897 with a population of 7,000, making it B.C.’s fourth largest city at the time. 

“Rossland developed out of the heyday of gold mining,” Andy Morel, Rossland’s mayor, told The Narwhal. The last mine closed in the 1920s. 

By 1896, two different railway companies had built lines into Rossland to transport ore and goods. Hotels and businesses established themselves as the city grew with the gold rush. Photo: D-02384 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum

“Mining on a very small scale might have been done a few times over the last 80 years or so, but it never occurred to most of us that we’re going to be looking at substantial mining expansion again in our community,” Morel said. Mining still has its mark in the community. Less than 10 kilometres away in neighbouring Trail, Teck’s zinc and lead smelter has been operating for more than 100 years.

Today, Rossland’s population is about 4,000 and many are proud of its shift from resource town to resort destination. The Seven Summits trail is an internationally recognized mountain biking ride and the local Red Mountain ski hill brought in US$2.8 million in revenue last season and spent more than US$1 million in wages and benefits. Rossland is one of 14 designated resort municipalities in the province, making it part of a select group of small municipalities receiving funding to bolster their tourism industries.

Mayor of Rossland, Andy Morel, hikes the Seven Summits trail and takes in the surrounding alpine views. Photo: Supplied by Andy Morel

“Many people have moved and continue to move to the community because of the outdoor lifestyle of skiing, mountain biking and hiking,” Morel said. The development of an open-pit mine so close to the community and its impact on the environment are in conflict with this, Morel said. “From a personal standpoint, I am challenged to find any way to accept a project this size to be considered in this location.”

Proposed Rossland mine slips just under threshold for environmental assessment — sometimes

The proposed project is an open-pit mine about 7.5 kilometres from Rossland. West High Yield Resources intends to extract magnesium as well as nickel and silica. To do that, the surface will be removed and minerals will be extracted from a hole in the ground approximately 200,000 square metres, roughly the size of 125 hockey rinks.   

West High Yield Resources estimates 30 to 50 seasonal jobs will be created in the first two years of the project. The mine is economically viable, in part, because there is “a high grade resource,” of magnesium as well as silicon, iron and nickel, Baim, who’s worked in resource development for the last 20 years including projects in hydrocarbons and oilsands, said. “From a volume standpoint and a footprint standpoint it will be very small in nature relative to a lot of comparative mines.”

But the community has raised concerns the scale of the project is described differently for investors than it was in the company’s application to B.C.’s environmental assessment office. The economic analysis and technical reports available online were performed for a commercial plant of 250,000 tonnes per year with a project duration of 20 years and lifespan of up to 170 years. Meanwhile West High Yield Resources’ submission to B.C.’s environmental assessment office was for two years “at a rate no greater than 249,000 tonnes per year.” 

An application for 250,000 tonnes per year would automatically trigger an environmental assessment, meaning West High Yield Resources’ application falls just below the threshold. The assessment is a government-led process that looks at the potential economic, social, health and environmental impacts of a proposed project. There are opportunities for public consultation and input. The office might decide a project can’t go forward, though that isn’t common. Usually, the assessment will result in recommendations to address possible impacts.

The farther slice of land visible from Rossland’s main street, Columbia Ave., is Record Ridge, where an open-pit magnesium mine is being proposed by West High Yield Resources. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

If the project proves successful beyond two years, Baim said they hope to expand. “Within that time frame, that’s obviously our attempt to demonstrate responsible mining and environmental stewardship and develop a viable economic project that then, when we can, look to the government and amend and for a longer-term period.”

Amending a project after approval is a well-known industry strategy called “project splitting” Sean Nixon, a lawyer for environmental law charity Ecojustice, told The Narwhal. An application for a mine comes in below the requirements for an environmental assessment, avoids an assessment and then the company applies to expand or amend their project once approvals are in hand. 

Many of those amendments are likely to harm the environment, according to a study led by Ben Collison, PhD student at Dalhousie University. Collison and his colleagues looked at 23 approved mines and found more than half received amendments. Nearly half of the approved mines were granted amendments likely to damage water resources and fish habitat. The requests also lacked detail and data to back up decisions, Collison found.

When asked about the application discrepancies and if this was a strategy to avoid environmental assessments, Baim said it needs to show economic potential and viability for a longer-term project. The company is reacting to what the government is asking for and “complying with the rules and regulations as are outlined by the Ministry of Mines.”

Not describing the full scope of a project to the environmental assessment office undermines the credibility of the entire process, Collison told The Narwhal. “From the get-go you are not adequately assessing what the project is actually going to turn out to be,” he said.

The proposed project is less than eight kilometres from Rossland and approximately five kilometres from the U.S. border. The open pit could be approximately 200,000 square metres — or roughly the size of 125 hockey rinks. Map: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

“It’s very common for projects to come in just under the threshold,” Nixon said. “What’s not so common is for them to proudly trumpet that they’re trying to go around this limit and that they plan to expand. That, in my view, should automatically trigger an environmental assessment.”

Morel and the Save Record Ridge Action Committee both say an environmental assessment is needed to gauge the impact of Record Ridge Magnesium Project and allow more time for the community to provide input. 

“I can’t believe that they’re somehow able to be under the radar,” Morel said. “To me, it just seems ludicrous to even allow drilling and exploration in sensitive areas.” West High Yield Resources has been drilling and exploring the area since 2007.

A group of environmentalists, botanists and naturalists walk along the edge of West High Yield Resources’ proposed open-pit mine on Record Ridge near Rossland, B.C. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

The environmental assessment office is reviewing West High Yield Resources’ application to determine whether or not it will require an environmental assessment. In an email, the office said while an assessment hasn’t been automatically triggered, the project still falls within the range of a possible assessment. West High Yield Resources has been asked to provide more information to the provincial government to help it make a decision. Any submissions will also be posted online

To make a decision, the office said it looks at a number of factors including ”interests and concerns raised by the proponent, First Nations, the public, local governments and provincial and federal agencies.” Another question the office is considering is if an assessment would support their “overarching purposes to advance sustainability and reconciliation.”

Questions about First Nations consultation in ‘culturally important’ area

Even if an environmental assessment is not required, the project still has to receive permits from the the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation. From exploration to closure, mining projects have to get various permits from the provincial government. Consultation with communities and First Nations doesn’t have to happen until the project applies for permits to start construction.

The province told The Narwhal early stages of consultation on the proposed mine in Record Ridge are now underway. It will be engaging with ten different Indigenous groups; Sinixt First Nation (Lakes Tribe of the Colville Confederated Tribes), Okanagan Nation Alliance, Osoyoos Indian Band, Penticton Indian Band, Upper Nicola Band, Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Okanagan Indian Band, Splatsin First Nation, Shuswap Band and Ktunaxa Nation Council.

Thomas Hunt, communications manager for the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, said First Nations are invited to participate in the mine development review committee. The committee is an advisory group made up of multiple representatives, including the City of Rossland. It does not have the authority to make decisions. 

While the province has a legal duty to consult First Nations, it does not need the consent of nations or nearby municipalities to move forward with a mine.

Like much of the province, the area in and around Rossland has no historic or modern treaties and continues to be occupied and cared for by varying Indigenous nations. There are also overlapping claims between different nations. 

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation are made up of 12 bands with over 9,500 members. Chairman Jarred-Michael Erickson wants to see better protections for waterways and communities downstream from mines in B.C. Photo: Francesca Fionda / The Narwhal

Jarred-Michael Erickson is chairman for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation made up of 12 constituent tribes. The tribes include the Colville Tribe and the Lakes Tribe. Harvesting, hunting and gathering continue to happen in the area around Rossland and downstream at the Columbia River. 

Erickson, who has been chairman since 2022, had not heard about the proposed mine when The Narwhal spoke to him in July. While he supports the push for a greener economy, he doesn’t believe government’s mining policies do enough to protect waterways or prevent pollution downstream. 

The Sinixt, which means people of the place of the bull trout, have territory in and around Rossland spanning from Revelstoke, B.C., to Kettle Falls in Washington. Due to the violent colonization carried out by the Canadian and U.S. governments, many Sinixt were displaced south and confined to a reserve in Washington and called the Arrow Lakes Tribe. In 1956, the federal government declared them “extinct” in Canada. In spite of the declaration of extinction, a recent Supreme Court win for the Sinixt acknowledged their rights to hunt and harvest in their territory.

The City of Rossland consults with the Autonomous Sinixt. As “autonomous” they are Sinixt who reject the authority of the governments of Canada, U.S.A., B.C, Washington State, Colville Confederated Tribes, Okanagan Nation Alliance and other governing bodies. Elder and Matriarch Marilyn James told The Narwhal she wasn’t contacted by West High Yield Resources or the provincial government about the project. When she reached out to the company, they invited her to provide feedback by email. She attended an open house hosted by the company in May.

Sinixt matriarch Marilyn James sits outside a pithouse in the Slocan Valley. The pithouse is located on an ancient Sinixt village site which James has caretaken since the early 1990s. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

“It is not a good plan,” James said. “Record Ridge has a lot of our traditional foods, gathering spots, it was an ancient trail, it hosts old camp sites.” She’s led a number of local projects including rewilding forests and developing trails and said she’s concerned the mine would destroy archaeological evidence and sensitive plants. “It’s culturally important because it also is right at the trans border line. The line that crossed us, the line that dismissed us, distinguished us, extinguished us, extincted us.”

Chief Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band confirmed via email that his community is participating in the B.C. government’s mine development review committee, and currently reviewing the Record Ridge proposal from both an environmental and economic perspective. So far, West High Yield Resources “has been respectful of our rights and title and as such we are engaging with them actively,” Louie said. “The final decision on the project remains in the future and depends on ensuring the rights, title and needs of the Osoyoos Indian Band are met. In the meantime, we will continue to engage the proponent and the BC Government.”

The engagement process is in early stages and not all First Nations The Narwhal contacted were able to provide a comment before publication time.

The duty to consult is largely government-led, though proponents are encouraged by government and industry associations to engage early in their projects. Baim said West High Yield Resources reached out to and met with all nations who had a land claim in the area in 2018. In 2022, he said the company reached out to two more First Nations. He did not provide a list of which First Nations but said they will have the opportunity to comment on the project. “We’ll continue to move forward with guidance from the government,” he added.

Critics of mine concerned about qualifications of company’s experts

For the community in and around Rossland, the public comment period has yet to open. Once the public consultation opens, community members and groups can submit their thoughts on the project to the provincial government. “We’re waiting to see what the province’s next move is on the project so we can respond accordingly,” Ben Isitt, a public interest and environmental lawyer representing the Save Record Ridge Action Committee, told The Narwhal. He said he has no idea when the province will invite comments. When asked for an update the province said there is “no anticipated decision date” for next steps.  

Beyond the environmental impact of the project, the committee has also raised questions about the qualifications of people working on the project and the company’s history. 

In 2018, West High Yield Resources was ordered to pay a $200,000 settlement to the Alberta Securities Commission for publishing a misleading news release about a sale of its mineral deposits. The news release stated the company had reached a deal to sell the asset for US$750 million, a price reported to be 46 times its market value. In the days after the announcement, its share prices jumped from between 30 and 40 cents a share up to a high of $3.80. But the deal collapsed. West High Yield Resources had known the would-be-purchaser did not have confirmed financial backing to make the purchase at the time of its news release. West High Yield Resources was also ordered to train its officers and directors on best practices for public company governance and disclosure by the end of 2019.

The regulator also found the actions were not intentional and the directors or officers did not receive any personal financial gains from the incident. “It was unfortunate,” Baim said, who was not directly involved at the time. He said the training was taken shortly after the decision. The project has been years in the making and the team has demonstrated to investors its “resilience and ability to continue the project,” Baim said. If something like this was to happen again, it would be handled in a “totally different manner.” 

The Gold Rush Bookstore in Rossland, B.C., pays homage to the city’s founding in mining and resource extraction. Despite this, many residents oopose a proposal by West High Yield Resources to create an open-pit magnesium mine on Record Ridge just outside of the city. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Critics of the mine proposal are also concerned about the credentials of the technical experts hired by West High Yield Resources. The company has three technical reports available online. These required reports disclose scientific and technical information about the project and must be authored by qualified professionals. None of the professionals listed in West High Yield Resources’ most recent reports published in November 2022 and February 2009 are currently registered in the provincial association of professional engineers and geoscientists’ database

Engineers and Geoscientists British Columbia told The Narwhal it is possible the professionals listed meet requirements without being registered. A spokesperson said they are aware of the issue and while they are legally not able to confirm specific investigations, the professional association said it does look into incidents where non-registrants are listed on projects in the province.

When asked about the reports, Baim said the authors have all their credentials and are qualified. He added the reports are referring to the technical aspects of processing the material. “The only thing that’s going on on-site is the mining and crushing of the ore and it will be transported off the mountain.” 

Where it ultimately gets transported to is still not confirmed. The report says the location of the plant is “TBD in southern British Columbia.” Baim said it could be, “anywhere and everywhere. It could be in Trail, could be in Northport, could be overseas.” 

‘Critical mineral’ or a ‘destructive new wave of extraction’?

West High Yield Resources’ website says it is “focused on the exploration and development of strategic critical minerals that play a pivotal role in the global societal transition towards green energy and a net zero carbon environment.” The minerals are all going to advance the goal outlined by many governments in the United Nations Paris Accord to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, Baim said.

For the first two years of the project, Baim said West High Yield Resources intends to sell its ore to U.S.-based Galaxy Magnesium. Its clients use magnesium for a wide range of end-products like light-weight race cars and helicopters, water piping and nutritional supplements.

It also has a subsidiary, Galaxy Power. The main products advertised are pumps, towers and hydraulic systems used to extract oil from deep wells. The magnesium is used in alloys to make lighter and faster oil pumps. In advertisements the company describes how the “energy-saving” power of using their pumps translates to being able to pull more oil per day out of fields in Kazakhstan.

For Mercier, the push for more mining to fuel a lower-carbon economy is greenwashing. “It’s an approach to keep fulfilling this need for consumption. It’s not an approach to actually protect the environment,” she said. She’d rather see policies that encourage alternative solutions to our transportation problems; like carpooling or biking rather than continuing to use cars. 

Along with the federal government offering a 30 per cent tax credit for critical mineral projects, the B.C. government is investing nearly $8 million over the next three years to develop a provincial strategy. 

Mining reform advocates have also raised questions about the critical minerals boom. A recent report written by Nikki Skuce of the Northern Confluence Initiative, a salmon watershed conservation group, questions how mining can help society out of the climate crisis. Skuce criticizes the lack of transparency provided by the government when determining what minerals should be categorized as “critical” and worries about the integrity of environmental assessments amid the rush to permit critical mineral mines. “In the months ahead as mining corporations line up to ask for support for a destructive new wave of extraction,” Skuce writes that policymakers should not be asking, “how can we get the minerals more quickly?” but “do we need them at all?”  

After Rossland open houses, company changes some plans but concerns linger

West High Yield Resources hosted two open houses to share more information about the project in May, where residents expressed many concerns about the project. There were “a lot of angry people” Morel said, who attended both meetings. People were extremely upset the project had advanced so far without their input, and at the first meeting the crowd grew hostile with cursing and name calling, Morel said. “It was a pretty challenging environment to be in.”

People were worried about truck traffic that would be transporting ore, possibly through Rossland’s main street which is lined with crosswalks, restaurants, the main grocery store, hostels and other businesses. Concerns were also raised about noise pollution and dust from blasting as well as possible surface and groundwater contamination.

The Seven Summits mountain biking trail is one of only four rides in Canada designated by the International Mountain Bicycling Association for its immersive ride through beautiful views and technical challenge. Melanie Mercier makes it a yearly tradition to head out on her bike. Photo: Supplied by Michael Wigley

Lifetime Rossland resident Kim Deane is in his early 80s and has seen Rossland change over the decades. Now retired, he was an electrical engineer who helped develop mines and worked at the smelter in Trail for 30 years. Currently, Deane describes himself as a “middle-of-the-roader” who would rather not see the project happen. His main concern is the area won’t be properly reclaimed. “The mine just isn’t worth it in terms of value and long-term cost to the region.”

Baim said since the meeting, alternate routes are being explored, the company is looking at using mechanized equipment for extraction instead of blasting and having enclosed environments to manage dust and noise. Baim also said part of the reclamation plan could be to replant or move local species. The reclamation plan is not public as it has not been approved yet, Baim said. 

Morel said he appreciates the company is trying to find ways around community concerns, but he doesn’t think it will be enough. The changes sound radical and costly to Morel and he wonders why the company didn’t consult with the community before submitting their application.

Hunt said the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation is in the early stages of reviewing West High Yield Resources’ permit application, which was submitted in June. He said the ministry would not provide an estimate for next steps, when a decision on the application could be made or when the project could start, adding the ministry is planning to have an information update meeting this fall. 

West High Yield Resources is hoping to have permits by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the community waits for answers to multiple lingering questions like details of the proposed reclamation plan, if there will be an environmental assessment and when they will be invited to submit official comments. 

If the project goes ahead, future generations won’t see how precious a place this is, Mercier said. “It just breaks my heart.”

— With files from Kelsie Kilawna, Louis Bockner and Steph Kwetásel’wet Wood

Updated on Aug. 16, 2023, at 3 p.m. PT: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Kim Deane.

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