Gibraltar-Mine-Taseko.jpg

Taseko’s Contaminated Water Discharge into Fraser River Prompts Resignation of Community From Mine Group

The Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society (CCCS) abruptly resigned this month from the Technical Advisory Committee that keeps tabs on water discharges from Taseko’s Gibraltar Mine, the second-largest open-pit copper mine in Canada.

After eight years there has been “absolutely no progress” on improving the mine’s water management practices, society chair Bill Lloyd wrote in a letter sent to other members of the committee.

Gibraltar Mine, northeast of Williams Lake, is 75 per cent owned by Taseko Mines Ltd., which took over the mine site in 1999.

An application for a permit to discharge water into the Fraser River was made in 2005 and granted in 2009. In 2015 the province gave temporary permission for the mine to increase the discharge so the effects could be studied — the company now wants that discharge permit made permanent.

“Local mine staff have been receptive to our concerns, but senior mine management and the Ministry of Environment have not supported our position,” Lloyd wrote, adding that instead of working together on environmentally acceptable solutions to mining waste “the relationship that exists at present is totally dysfunctional and will result in a mine that, at closure, will still be dumping all contaminated site water into the Fraser River.”

The company says it didn’t see the resignation coming.

“We were surprised and frankly disappointed that they decided to quit,” Brian Battison, Taseko vice-president of corporate affairs, told DeSmog Canada.

“We are seeking to make the discharge permit permanent,” Battison said, adding data has been gathered on the release of mine waste into the river for over eight years. “There have been no effects on aquatic life,” he said.

But the Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society, which has been a member of the mine’s advisory committee since 2009, has a mandate to protect the health of the Fraser River watershed, Lloyd wrote.

The conservation organization has been a member of the advisory committee since it started in 2009, with a mandate to represent the concerns of the general public. The committee, made up of representatives from First Nations, the company and federal and provincial governments, receives briefings from the mine operators on weekly tests on water discharged into the Fraser River and then provides feedback to the company.

Although the group disagrees with direct discharge of tailings effluent into the river, the aim was to work with the committee to improve water management and encourage the use of passive treatment, Lloyd wrote.

“Lax regulations” on Effluents in Waterways

Ugo Lapointe of MiningWatch Canada said mining companies should be spending more on improving water treatment before discharging effluent into the environment, but lax regulations allow them to use natural water bodies to dilute contaminated effluents.

“They are then being asked to monitor the pollution levels at 100-metres or more from the discharge point,” Lapointe told DeSmog Canada.

“This should not be allowed or, at least, be used as the very last resort if no other treatment technologies are available.”

Lloyd said his resignation comes with a sense of failure, but, as a volunteer organization, it is felt the time could be better spent on other community projects.

An Environment Ministry spokesperson confirmed that the test results have been reviewed and have not shown any problems with either the original discharge or the increased discharge.

“These results have shown that the discharge has not had any ecologically significant impacts to the Fraser River and water quality is being protected,” said David Karn in an emailed response to questions.

The discharge is needed to ensure water does not build up on site and the tailings dam does not have to be raised to store more water, Karn said.

Discharge of Mine Waste into Environment Not Correct Solution

The mine accumulates six million cubic metres of water every year, mainly from rainfall, snowmelt and groundwater, and that goes into the tailings pond along with mine water treated with lime.

Lloyd said direct discharge into the Fraser is an easy solution, but it is not the correct one for the health of the watershed.

The society wants surrounding natural wetlands to be used to treat wastewater through biological and ecological processes, instead of water from the mine being piped or ditched to the tailings storage pond and treated with chemicals.

“The cumulative effects of this practice will remain unknown for some time and it is a problem that will be inherited by our grandchildren and the taxpayer,” Lloyd wrote, adding that a fresh approach is needed with decisions based on science rather than political expediency.

“Huge resources are spent on the [committee] justifying a bad practice. These resources could be better directed to actually improving site water quality,” Lloyd said.

Battison said at the society’s urging, the mine did conduct a passive water treatment at a local wetland, but large water volumes made the practice difficult to scale.

“We are working with them and taking their ideas, but you can’t just take water and put it out into the environment as was suggested…It is potentially feasible for smaller volumes, such as when there is closure of the mine,” Battison said.

The fate of the discharge permit now rests in the hands of the provincial government.

Karn said recommendations from the Technical Advisory Committee, ministry staff and First Nations will likely go to the statutory decision maker sometime next year.

Image: Gibraltar Mine. Photo: Taseko via Facebook

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Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to thousands of readers just like you.

The Narwhal's growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired seven new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting.

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