Fraser River South of Williams Lake_Credit Tsilhqot’in National Government

Tsilhqot’in Nation fights B.C.’s approval of Gibraltar mine’s waste discharge into Fraser River

A provincial permit allows the mine to discharge the equivalent of nearly 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools of waste water into the river daily during select months

When Chief Francis Laceese was seven years old he went fishing with his father at one of the traditional Tsilhqot’in fishing sites along the Fraser River and, during a break, scooped up a bucket of water to make tea over the fire.

Today, no one would feel safe making tea from river water because of effluent flowing directly into the river from the Gibraltar mine, Laceese, 61, told The Narwhal.

As Tl’esqox chief, Laceese is among the Tsilhqot’in leaders fighting against a provincial permit that grants the Taseko-owned Gibraltar mine permission to increase by 50 per cent the amount of untreated tailings pond water being piped into the river from the mine site 60 kilometres north of Williams Lake.

The Gibraltar mine was first built in 1972 and is Canada’s second-largest open-pit copper mine. 

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This week, at a live virtual Environmental Appeal Board hearing, the Tsilhqot’in National Government is appealing an amendment to the permit made in 2019 that allows the mine to increase the daily discharge of tailings effluent to about 24 million litres — the equivalent of nearly 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools — between the months of November and April.

In an emailed statement to The Narwhal, a spokesperson for the environment ministry said that an independent statutory decision maker considered “the best available science” before authorizing the release of mine waste water into the Fraser River. Waste water discharge is needed to ensure water does not build up on site and require the mine’s tailings dam to be raised to store more water, according to a previous statement from the B.C. Ministry of Environment. 

“The site water being discharged is primarily rain runoff and, based on ongoing testing, meets with water quality guidelines,” the spokesperson said in the email.

Ministry staff are continuing to work with the company, Tsilhqot’in National Government and other agencies to monitor the discharge and ensure water quality guidelines continue to be met, according to the ministry.

In a precedent-setting 2014 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that the Tsilhqot’in Nation held Aboriginal Title to almost 1,800 kilometres of land in central B.C., southwest of Williams Lake. That means the Tsilhqot’in Nation, made up of six communities, has the right to exclusive use and control of the land.

Constitutionally protected Aboriginal Rights also extend to the nation’s surrounding traditional territory, which includes the area where the Gibraltar mine is located.

The appeal, which has the support of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, Assembly of First Nations and First Nations Summit, deals exclusively with the increase in discharge volume — but what the Tsilhqot’in Nation ultimately wants is an end to the practice of dumping mine waste water into the Fraser, Laceese said.

“There’s a giant pipe going from the mine to the river discharging untreated mining effluent into the Fraser River,” Laceese said, adding that, over the decades, the appearance and smell of the river has changed.

white sturgeon Fraser River

A young adult white sturgeon photographed in the Fraser River. Photo: Fernando Lessa

Tsilhqot’in Nation concerned about mining waste’s impacts to salmon, sturgeon

Last year saw some of the lowest salmon runs on record for the Fraser River, where endangered white sturgeon populations have also seen a dramatic decline in recent years.

The Tsilhqot’in have expressed concern that salmon and sturgeon populations are facing increased pressure from industrial contaminants not only from mines, but also from pulp mills, in addition to warming waters due to climate change. Many fish species are sensitive to temperature and can live and breed only within certain temperature ranges

“The continued environmental pressure being put on the Fraser River and our salmon is unacceptable and in direct opposition to our Indigenous laws,” Laceese said, adding he worries that, in addition to chemical hazards, the discharge volume from the mine is so large that it also increases the water temperature.

Gibraltar was bought by Taseko Mines Ltd. in 1999 and reopened in 2004. The B.C. government first approved an application to have untreated tailings pond water discharged into the Fraser River in 2006. The original permit was successfully challenged by the Xat’sull First Nation (formerly known as the Soda Creek First Nation) and overturned by the Environmental Appeal Board. 

A revised permit was issued by the province in 2009 which allowed the discharge to take place and in 2015 the mine was granted a temporary amendment that allowed a 50 per cent increase in discharge volume. A second request in 2017 was rejected by the province due to a lack of technical information. A revised application was submitted in 2018 that requested a permit amendment that would allow the increased discharge to take place for three years. That three-year amendment was approved in March of 2019 and has been challenged by the Tsilhqot’in Nation since then, leading to this week’s hearings.

The mine’s discharge pipe is located four kilometres downstream from and near traditional fishing sites of the ʔEsdilagh (Alexandria) First Nation, a Tsilhqot’in nation member.

In May 2020, ʔEsdilagh enacted the Sturgeon River Law (ʔElhdaqox Dechen Ts’edilhtan), a written version of traditional laws that require water users in the ʔEsdilagh area to keep the water clean for future generations. The law was endorsed by the Tsilhqot’in National Government.

A map showing the location of the discharge pipe in relation to the Gibraltar mine. Source: Tsilhqot’in National Government

Chad Stump, an ʔEsdilagh councillor, told The Narwhal the effluent is potentially dangerous and, with salmon runs dwindling to the point that Tsilhqot’in have had to give up harvesting rights, nothing should be put in the river that could be harmful.

“The way we are living now is not suitable for us. We can’t rely on our fish any more. It has to change,” he said.

“We are not opposed to putting something in the river, but it has to be clean. It has to be something that will be beneficial for future generations,” Stump said. He added that “on many occasions we have proposed a water treatment plant” to Taseko but said the idea seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Phone calls and emails to Taseko from The Narwhal were not returned.

The Tsilhqot’in Nation has had a rocky relationship with Taseko, due to another mine, the New Prosperity mine, proposed within its territory. Taseko spent a dozen years fighting to build the mine in an area the Tsilhqot’in Nation consider sacred, even after the project was rejected by the federal government and courts.

The company is now in confidential talks with the Tsilhqot’in Nation concerning that project. 

Read more: Taseko’s contaminated water discharge into Fraser River prompts resignation of community from mine group

Fraser River is ‘getting bombarded with cumulative impacts’: ecologist

Studies commissioned by the company suggest that diluting effluent in the river is an effective way of dealing with the excess water collected at the Gibraltar mine site and note there is little effect on plants and fish.

“Overall, environmental effects monitoring has indicated that the influence of the Gibraltar mine effluent discharge is minor,” said a 2020 overview report for the mine prepared by Minnow Environmental Inc.

“A small, but detectable influence on water quality was evident in higher nitrite, sulphate and molybdenum concentrations immediately downstream of the discharge, relative to upstream, but concentrations of these analytes were well below B.C. water quality guidelines,” says the overview report.

However, one of the previous three reports notes that the discharge, which is more evident and concentrated during low flow periods, was detectable 250 metres downstream from the pipe.

Endorsement of the discharge by the ministry of environment and the results of Taseko’s commissioned studies have not convinced Tsilhqot’in members that dilution should be considered a solution to the mine’s waste water.

Two experts, a water quality biologist and a sturgeon biologist, are assessing the mine’s monitoring program and investigating the potential effect of the discharge on sturgeon and salmon on behalf of the Tsilhqot’in.

Craig Orr, conservation advisor for the Watershed Watch Salmon Society and a professional ecologist, said he does not yet know what is in the discharge, but heavy metals, commonly found in tailings, can affect the ability of fish to find food and are likely to cause stress. The discharge permit lists allowable discharge amounts for copper, arsenic, cadmium, lead, molybdenum, mercury, aluminum, selenium and sulphates but does not indicate the presence or amount of these pollutants in the actual discharged water.

“It’s not just the fish, it’s the bugs in the river or the health of the eggs in the gravel and increasing chemical pollutants — persistent organic pollutants — would be a very large concern,” Orr said.

“It needs to stop. We’ve already seen the lowest returns of Fraser River sockeye ever this past year. The Fraser is just getting bombarded with cumulative impacts from many sides and we just don’t need to put any more effluent or add to the stressors. … It’s really quite shocking actually and I don’t know why the public or First Nation should put up with it,” Orr said.

The Farwell Canyon is located in the territory of the Tsilhqot’in Nation. The Chilcotin River which runs through the canyon flows into the Fraser River. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

For eight years Bill Lloyd, Cariboo Chilcotin Conservation Society president, was a member of the Taseko Technical Advisory Committee and worked on finding better solutions to Gibraltar’s water management, but, in 2017, he quit in frustration saying there had been absolutely no progress.

Lloyd told The Narwhal that the effluent comes straight from the mine’s tailings pond and he has no doubt it is damaging to water quality in the Fraser.

Sulphates and nitrates tend to spike because of the amount of blasting and milling on the site and Taseko does not seem willing to spend money on water management or separating relatively clean site water from the tailings, Lloyd said in an interview.

“They are just not willing to develop any kind of environmental or social conscience. That’s the problem,” he said.

The price of copper has surged over the last year to the highest mark in nine years, so this would be the time for Taseko to invest some of those profits in water treatment, Lloyd suggested.

On the Taseko website, Gibraltar is described as the cornerstone of the company’s growth strategy.

“With the price of copper right now, they can afford to make some changes,” Lloyd said.

Update March 24, 2021 at 6:55 p.m. PST: This article was updated to correct a photo caption. The image of Farwell Canyon was inaccurately labeled as showing the Nemiah Valley.

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