Hundreds of placer mines, which have never undergone environmental assessments, are operating in the Fraser River watershed with minimal government oversight despite mounting evidence that the operations pollute water and harm salmon, a report by the Fair Mining Collaborative has found.
Placer mining involves digging up gravel adjacent to streams and rivers and washing it to extract the gold or other minerals in the sediment. In addition to mines that use excavation equipment, there are thousands of hand-mining operations, many of which do not have permits, the report found.
The report, commissioned by First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM), calls for a moratorium on claim staking and work permits until the process is reformed and adequate safeguards are put in place, with First Nations given a partnership role in coming up with rules and regulations.
“I go around our territory and see all the destruction in the back country. It’s criminal if you ask me,” Bev Sellars, FNWARM chair and former chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation, said in an interview.
Ideally, the practice should be stopped, but at the very least, it should be monitored and cumulative effects considered, she said.
Amy Crook, Fair Mining Collaborative executive director, agreed the concerns are broader than direct pollution from the placer mines.
“Because placer mining is hardly monitored, its impacts are not factored in when major mines are assessed and given limits on the amount of effluents they can introduce into water systems,” Crook said.
“We need to know how the combined impacts affect the river system and fish and those who depend on them.”
The report, titled “The New Gold Rush,” found 300 to 350 placer mines have held a permit to operate in the Fraser Watershed since 2014 and there is no record of a placer mine ever having undergone an environmental assessment — even though the Cohen Commission noted placer mining has the potential to have severe impacts on sockeye salmon.
“This is our lifeblood. It is being poisoned and we need action now,” said Sellars, noting there is a new surge of interest in placer mining, which means increased risk.
It has been proved that increased sediment levels harm salmon and suffocate eggs laid in streambeds, says the report.
FNWARM wants to see environmental assessment laws updated with regulations to include the effects on salmon, cumulative affects and assessments of sensitive habitats.
The trigger for an environmental assessment in B.C. is annual production of more than 500,000 tonnes — resulting in no environmental assessments during the past decade. In contrast, in the Yukon, where there are a variety of triggers, there were 84 assessments of placer mines in 2015/2016 and 592 during the past decade.
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The Fraser River watershed is also littered with old mines, some dating back to the 1800s gold rush, which are likely continuing to pollute the water, but have never been assessed, according to the research.
Historical records show that from 1858 to 1909, placer mining added an estimated 110 million tonnes of tailings to the Fraser’s sediment load.
“This is more than seven times the amount of solid sediment released (into the Quesnel watershed) by the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster,” the report says.
The ease with which someone can stake a claim is alarming and regulations desperately need to be updated, said Sellars, who proved her point earlier this year when she staked a claim on the Cranbrook property owned by former energy and mines minister Bill Bennett.
“I had never seen his property, but I was able to go online and, within an hour, I had a claim on his private property. It cost me about $120,” said Sellars, who will retain the claim for a year.
“It’s ridiculous,” she said, pointing out that claims are constantly being made on First Nations territory.
To stake a placer mine claim, a free miner’s certificate in needed, for a cost of $25, and an online map is then used to stake the claim.
About one-quarter of B.C.’s land base is open for placer mineral claims and more than 7,700 claims are currently registered, covering about 400,000 hectares.
Various private websites promote placer mining and the site B.C. Placer has the headline “The B.C. Government WANTS You To Mine Gold.”
“The laws, fees and inspectors in B.C. are generally very friendly towards individuals and small operations,” it says.
An earlier Fair Mining Collaborative report, released last month, questions why the B.C. government is allowing such environmental destruction when financial returns are minimal.
In 2015 the province collected an estimated $64,965 in royalties, while placer miners who filed mineral tax returns reported gold sales of $12,982,931.
A recent paper by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, concluded that, not only do inspectors rarely visit placer mines, government rules, such as the 10-metre setback from streams are often ignored.
An Environment Ministry audit found that less than half of the mines inspected were obeying the setback and only one of 26 mines inspected was carrying out the required reclamation work, said the ELC report.
“The limited audit actually discovered that three mines operating in critical fish habitat areas were actually mining in the stream itself,” said the ELC report, which recommended a judicial inquiry into the province’s mining regulation, including placer mine rules
Bennett has since dismissed the call for a public inquiry, saying the province has already strengthened mining rules, compliance and enforcement and an inquiry would be “demonstrably redundant.”
Photo: Fraser River by Dru! via Flickr