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Transboundary Environmental Coalition calls for halt to new mines in Canada’s Southern Rockies

January 30, 2017

In light of recent charges brought against Teck (TSE:TECK.B) under the Fisheries Act for fish deaths resulting from the failure of their selenium treatment plant in 2014, the Flathead Wild Coalition is renewing their call for a halt to new coal mines in BC’s Elk River Valley.

Selenium levels in the Elk River watershed continue to be a serious threat to fish populations not only in Canada but also in the Koocanusa reservoir and the Kootenai River in the United States.

Despite more than three years of operations at West Line Creek, Teck’s treatment process has still not safely solved the selenium problem from that mine. Selenium-leaching waste rock dumps at all five of Teck’s Elk Valley mines continue to grow – and selenium levels in the Elk River and downstream continue to increase.

“Teck must do more to make sure selenium levels downstream of waste rock dumps are safe for fish,” said Ryland Nelson, Wildsight’s Southern Rockies Program Manager, “and we hope Environment Canada will continue their enforcement actions to push Teck to fix their water pollution problems.”

Meanwhile, expansions at four of Teck’s five open-pit coal mines in the Elk Valley have recently been approved by the BC Government and three new mines from other companies have been proposed, with more exploration ongoing.

“Without a proven, reliable selenium treatment method, increased mining in the area is unthinkable,” said Nelson, “it is time for the BC Government to stop entertaining new mines.”

Selenium levels in the Elk River currently far exceed BC’s water quality guidelines. Levels in the Koocanusa Reservoir, which spans the border, have exceeded US Environmental Protection Agency criteria.

“Excessive selenium levels, which have been found in fish tissue on both sides of the border, threaten reproduction and cause spinal and gill deformations in trout and other fish species,” said Ric Hauer, Professor of Limnology at the University of Montana. “Absent effective treatment, selenium is expected to continue leaching from waste rock dumps for generations.”

“The BC Government needs to step up and do much more to defend clean water and the world-class wildlife connectivity and habitat in the region,” said Candace Batycki, from Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, “instead of just approving more and more mining.”

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Contact:

Ryland Nelson, Wildsight, 250.531.0445

Ric Hauer, University of Montana, 406.250.9900

Candace Batycki, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, 250.352.3830

BACKGROUNDER:

The Elk River Valley, and the adjacent Flathead River Valley in the Southeastern corner of
British Columbia, are part of a critical connectivity corridor for wildlife along the Rocky
Mountains that spans across the national border. Large open-pit coal mines and
unsustainable logging practices threaten not just water, fish and other aquatic species, but
connectivity and habitat for grizzly bears and other mammals. The Elk and Flathead valleys
are an important part of the larger Crown of the Continent region that includes the
Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Flathead Wild is a coalition of six Canadian and U.S. conservation groups: Canadian Parks
and Wilderness Society – BC Chapter, Headwaters Montana, National Parks Conservation
Association, Sierra Club BC, Wildsight, and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative.
The groups are working to permanently protect B.C.’s Flathead valley, long recognized as
the missing piece of the adjacent Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park and World
Heritage Site. They are calling for a national park feasibility study in the southeastern
one-third of the Flathead, and a Wildlife Management Area in the rest of the valley and
adjoining habitat.

For more information visit www.flathead.ca

Feature Image by Michael Ready

Mount Polley Disaster Stunner: Federal Government Moves To Stop MiningWatch from Presenting Evidence To Court

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Williams Lake (B.C.), January 13 2017. The federal Crown announced this morning in Williams Lake Court that it is moving to stay MiningWatch’s charges against the B.C. government and Mount Polley Mining Corporation (MPMC)—owned by Imperial Metals—over the largest mine waste disaster in Canadian history. If successful, the Crown action would prevent MiningWatch from presenting evidence to the Court about the 2014 spill’s damages to downstream waters and fish habitat, in violations of the Fisheries Act (see backgrounder below).

“We were stunned that the federal Crown does not even want us show the Court that there was enough evidence to justify proceeding with a prosecution against both the B.C. government & MPMC for the worst mining spill in Canadian history,” says Ugo Lapointe, Canada Program Coordinator for MiningWatch.

The Court will decide in the next few weeks if the Crown is allowed to enter a stay of charges so early in the process, without even first hearing the evidence from the private prosecutor (MiningWatch).

MiningWatch is concerned that by staying these proceedings without clear justifications, the Crown is sending the wrong signal to industry across Canada and further undermines public confidence in the ability of our regulatory system to effectively protect our environment.

Lapointe: “We initiated this private prosecution out of concern that it has now been over two and a half years since the Mount Polly disaster happened and yet, despite clear evidence of violations of Canadian laws, no charges have been brought forward by any level of government.”

The Public Prosecution Service of Canada Deskbook describes private prosecutions as “a valuable constitutional safeguard against inertia or partiality on the part of authorities”. MiningWatch’s lawyer Lilina Lysenko: “staying the charges prior to having the opportunity to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to proceed could undermine this constitutional safeguard if it is done without good reason.”

This decision also raises serious questions about the federal Crown’s real intention to lay, or not, its own charges against B.C. government and MPMC. Lapointe: “Soon to be three years after the fact, they still haven’t filed their own charges. What confidence can the public have that if they can’t even say when, or if, they will file their own charges? They’re welcome to take over the case, but to prosecute it, not to stay, dismiss or stall the proceedings.”

Call to action 

MiningWatch is calling on the public to seek answers and clear commitment from the federal government to enforce its own environmental laws when they are violated. Please take the time to write to both Hon. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (justin.trudeau@parl.gc.ca) and Hon. Dominique Leblanc, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (dominic.leblanc@parl.gc.ca). Let them know you want to de Canadian Fisheries Act to be enforced promptly in the case of the Mount Polley Mine disaster in British-Columbia. More actions will follow.

MiningWatch’s legal action is supported by multiple local, provincial, and national organizations, including West Coast Environmental Law-Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund (main funder), Amnesty International Canada, Sierra Club BC, Wilderness Committee, First Nations Women Advocating for Responsible Mining, Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake, Quesnel River Watershed Alliance, Fair Mining Collaborative, Rivers Without Borders, British Columbia Environmental Network, Clayoquot Action, Forest Protection Allies, Kamloops Area Preservation Association, Kamloops Physicians for the Environment Society, Alaska Clean Water Advocacy.

For more information:

Ugo Lapointe, Canada Program Coordinator, MiningWatch Canada, c.514-708-0134

 

BACKGROUNDER

With the support of multiple organizations, MiningWatch filed in October 2016 a private prosecution claiming that the massive 2014 spill destroyed or altered large swaths of fish habitat, in clear violations of sections 35(1) and 36(3) of the federal Fisheries Act (see also backgrounder online).

On August 4 2014, Mount Polley Mine’s tailings dam collapsed and sent up to 25 million cubic metres (10 000 Olympic-size pools) of wastewater and mine waste solids into downstream waters, destroying or affecting over 2 612 470 m2 of aquatic and riparian habitats—equivalent to about 500 football fields or 1500 ice hockey rinks.

Impact assessment reports of the spill commissioned by BC’s Ministry of Environment and MPMC indicate strong evidence of an impact to sediments, both physically and chemically, within Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake.

Chemical impacts are most evident in elevated copper, but also in concentrations of iron, selenium, arsenic, vanadium, manganese, and other contaminants. In some instances, concentrations consistently exceeded provincial Sediment Quality Guidelines (and above background levels).

The National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) reports that the Mount Polley Mine represented the largest emitter of copper, arsenic and manganese in Canadian waters in 2014 due to the tailings spill.

Studies also indicated effects to benthic invertebrates, which are also protected under the Fisheries Act. Effects are ranging from an absence of organisms, lower density and taxon richness, and limited differences in community composition.

MiningWatch is taking action now because it is concerned that, almost two and a half years after the disaster, governments have failed to lay charges and enforce the law, despite clear and ample evidence to justify proceeding. MiningWatch fears that this sends the wrong signal to the industry across the country and undermines public confidence in the capacity of our regulatory system to work effectively to protect our environment.

Under specific provisions of the Canadian Criminal Code and the Fisheries Act, any citizen can initiate a private prosecution if he or she believes, on reasonable grounds, that a person has committed an indictable offence. In order words, the legislation specifically provides an incentive for private persons to enforce federal laws like the Fisheries Act in order to ensure the protection of public resources, such fish and fish habitat, even if against the Federal or Provincial Crown. As stated in the Public Prosecution Service of Canada Deskbook, private prosecutions are “a valuable constitutional safeguard against inertia or partiality on the part of authorities.”

While MiningWatch is prepared to carry the case to full trial if necessary, it also recognizes that the cost and expense associated with prosecuting a case against a mining corporation and the Provincial Government can be immense. For this reason, it will be asking for the Federal Crown to carry the prosecution forward. If Canada’s unique environmental values and waters are to be fully protected, it can only occur if the government stands against violations of its own laws and uses all the means and resources it has at its disposal to do so.

This legal action is supported by multiple local, provincial, and national organizations, including West Coast Environmental Law-Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund (main funder), Amnesty International Canada, Sierra Club BC, Wilderness Committee, First Nations Women Advocating for Responsible Mining, Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake, Quesnel River Watershed Alliance, Fair Mining Collaborative, Rivers Without Borders, British Columbia Environmental Network, Clayoquot Action, Forest Protection Allies, Kamloops Area Preservation Association, Kamloops Physicians for the Environment Society, Alaska Clean Water Advocacy.

Report: Government failure to adequately address tailings pond issues exposes environment and British Columbians to continued serious risk of Mt Polley-type failures  

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

August 4, 2016

VICTORIA—A report prepared for Sierra Club BC shows there is an ongoing and serious risk of tailings storage facility failures, highlighting the fundamental inadequacy of the B.C. government’s response to date.

Despite some positive steps by government, the report concludes the Expert Panel’s forecast of an average of two significant failures per decade in B.C. remains valid.

“The situation we have today is nothing less than a series of toxic time bombs at mining sites across B.C.,” said Sierra Club BC executive director Bob Peart. “To know inadequate government action will likely result in two tailings dam disasters per decade is absolutely unacceptable. The provincial government has put mining company profits before public and environmental health and safety.”

The analysis, conducted by Dr. David Chambers, president of the Centre for Science in Public Participation, has been submitted to the provincial government.

Dr. Chambers’ review of the proposed changes compares concerns and recommendations raised by the government’s Expert Panel and B.C.’s Auditor General, with recently announced changes to mining regulations. It identifies significant shortcomings in the government response to the disaster.

The Expert Panel notably rejected the acceptability of business as usual for tailings dam design and maintenance, but the proposed reforms leave an ongoing and serious risk of tailings storage facility (TSF) failures.

Key areas of concern identified in the report include:

  • The way in which the Alternatives Assessments that guide mine proposals and permits are undertaken remains largely undefined. For example, it does not yet address the Expert Panel’s important recommendations to eliminate surface water from the impoundment or to deal with fundamental stability issues like saturation levels and compaction of tailings materials. This leaves the door wide open for site level costs to continue their present dominance of the rationale for choosing TSF design options.
  • In the application of Best Available Technology to TSF design, the Expert Panel clearly said that safety and physical stability should be the paramount consideration. However, there is nothing in the proposed changes that explicitly states that costs related to environmental and community impacts in the short and long term must be considered in “economics and financial feasibility” considerations.  It does not provide any guidance to drive a safety-first design approach. As a result companies can continue to legitimately employ a business-as-usual approach.
  • While the requirement for Independent Tailings Review Boards is a positive step, the current proposal states that an ITRB “provides non-binding advice and guidance, but does not direct the work or perform the role of the Engineer of Record.” There is no requirement to publicly disclose any ITRB recommendation that is altered, or not implemented, by either the mine or regulators. This lack of transparency and accountability significantly reduces the value of ITRB to reassure the public that dam safety is being taken seriously.
  • Importantly, especially in terms of the Auditor General’s report, there is still far too much latitude and discretion in terms of the financial sureties that are assessed and collected by the province. The ongoing lack of consistency and rigor in the process for reclamation and closure-related sureties continues to leave the Province—and hence the taxpayer—at significant financial risk.

There are some positives. Progress has been made in: enhancing the evaluation of potential failure modes of both operating and closed tailings facilities; and strengthening the requirements for the Engineer of Record and Independent Tailings Review Boards (ITRB).

“It’s all too clear that the government has failed to address the issues that led to the Mt. Polley disaster,” said Peart. “As a result, the people and the environment of B.C. remain at serious risk of future catastrophic failures. The government’s promise of requiring responsible mining has been sacrificed at the altar of mining company profits.”

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The report can be accessed here: Comments on the Code Review Changes to Part 10 Mine Health Safety and Reclamation Code

Contacts:

Dr. David Chambers
907-294-2228
dchambers@csp2.org
Please note: Dr. Chambers is working on-site in Alaska this week and is only reachable between 7 – 8 am or 9-11 pm Pacific Time at 907-294-2228. He suggests contacting him by email to set up an interview.

Tim Pearson
Director of Communications, Sierra Club BC
250-896-1556
tim@sierraclub.bc.ca

About Dr. Chambers: Dr. Chambers has a strong technical background that makes him eminently qualified to provide this analysis.  He is president of the Centre for Science in Public Participation.  He has a Professional Engineer’s degree from Colorado School of Mines, a Master’s in Geophysics, and a PhD. in Environmental Planning from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Chambers recently published a major report on tailings dam safety internationally[1].  He has worked extensively throughout the North America for over 20 years and has been following the Mt. Polley situation to better understand the implications for the future of responsible mining policy and practices

[1] Risk-Public Liability-Economics of Tailings Storage Facility Failures, Lindsay Newland Bowker & David M Chambers — July 2015 

 

Featured image courtesy of Fair Mining Collaborative

Residential neighbourhood no place for an open-pit mine

Although many might be hearing about it for the first time, residents of Kamloops, B.C. have been fighting the Ajax mine development for several years. The gigantic open-pit gold and copper mine is proposed to be built on the edge of this busy urban centre. A recent report commissioned by Sierra Club BC shows what local residents have always known: this is no place for an open-pit mine.

Until April 11, 2016, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is accepting public comments on the Ajax Mine proposal.

Given its proximity to several residential neighbourhoods, it should come as no surprise that Ajax Mine would negatively impact the air quality and the health of local residents. The mine would be situated within six kilometres of eight elementary schools, four high schools, four senior residences, one hospital and the Thompson Rivers University. There are homes in close proximity to the site, and the closest Kamloops neighbourhood and elementary school is within two kilometres of the proposed mine.

The only surprise is Ajax’s promise of “zero harm” and its promise to “meet or exceed all environmental laws and regulations”. Our report, conducted by hydrogeologist, Dr. Kevin Morin highlighted a number of serious public health concerns and ecological impacts that are likely to ensue if Ajax is allowed to proceed.

Concerns raised in the expert report include the contamination of groundwater and the Peterson Creek Aquifer—a source of domestic water and tributary to the Thompson River. Another report, conducted by Dr. Steyn, an air quality expert, suggests the mine would increase fine dust particles in the Kamloops airshed and negatively impact health of residents.

Dr. Morin’s report also highlights concerns over the way Ajax assessed the mine’s threat to the local environment. The report suggests that Ajax “significantly underestimates the likely contamination of water leaving the mine site. Thus, the Ajax modelling  underestimates the potential damage to human health and the environment that could be caused by its mine.

It is vitally important the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency hear from concerned citizens, and experts like Dr. Morin and Dr. Steyn, rather than simply relying on flawed modelling by the company who seeks to profit if the project goes ahead.

As if the threats to environment and health were not enough, Ajax mine would also destroy part of Jacko Lake and Peterson Creek, sacred to First Nations. Jacko Lake (Pipsell in Secwepemc language) is the site of an epic Secwepemc traditional oral story called the ‘Trout Children,’ and its bountiful fishing helped feed ancestors of today’s Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation (SSN). Perched on a high grassland plateau just above the city of Kamloops, the lake is home to an amazing biodiversity and is visited by more than 130 bird species and 40 mammals. Human artifacts dating back 7,000 years have been found around the lake. Ajax’s mine would literally need to dam-off and destroy 20,400 m2 of productive habitat within Jacko Lake. The SSN people, who still fish on the lake today, like thousands of local and international anglers every year, are squarely opposed to this scheme and have recently filed a claim asserting title to the lands and waters where the mine would be located.

The fact that such a large-scale mining operation in such close proximity to an urban area wasn’t weeded out earlier in the process highlights the way B.C.’s outdated mining legislation puts the mining industry ahead of the health and well-being of communities and watersheds. In a modern, diversified economy, mining is only one economic activity among many. B.C. should update its antiquated mining laws and take a good look at the costs and benefits of mining versus other economic activities. And, as with any project, the Ajax decision and B.C.’s mining legislation must respect the rights and title of First Nations, and the principle of free, prior, and informed consent.

With thanks to the Kamloops Area Preservation Association (KAPA), Kamloops Moms For Clean Air, Kamloops Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Concerned Citizens of Kamloops, and Mining Watch Canada for a great collaboration!

 

 

Environmental Groups Demand B.C. Mining Industry Clean Up Its Act

Thursday, February 4, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

VANCOUVER – Environmental groups are calling on the BC government and mining companies to commit to better practices and stronger regulations to protect the environment and communities from industrial pollution.

Just as Premier Christy Clark announced last week more subsidies for the mining industry, the Wilderness Committee today unveiled a new publication – produced with support from MiningWatch Canada and Clayoquot Action – demanding that BC’s mining industry be constrained by tougher environmental laws governing the creation, storage and disposal of mine waste. Last month, the environmental organization released a short video calling for mine tailings “ponds” to be banned, in order to avoid disasters such as the Mount Polley tailings dam failure in August 2014.

“We believe that BC’s outdated mining regulations are in fact downright dangerous to human health, the economy and the environment – including water quality and the province’s world famous wild salmon runs,” said Wilderness Committee National Campaign Director Joe Foy. “That’s why we are teaming up with likeminded organizations to demand that the BC government clean up the province’s mining industry,” he said.

“We are pleased to work with the Wilderness Committee and other BC organizations to make the case that stronger mining regulations can not only help protect the environment, but also shelter taxpayers from billions of dollars in mine clean-up and public health costs down the road,” said Ugo LaPointe of MiningWatch Canada.

In addition to the risks British Columbians face as a result of mine pollution, taxpayers in the province are also helping to foot the bill for rising power costs at BC mines. BC Premier Christy Clark recently pledged to allow mining companies to defer their electricity bills, and Mines Minister Bill Bennett has said companies may also avoid hydro rate hikes to help mine operators dealing with financial difficulties.

“It simply makes no sense to subsidize mining companies with low electricity rates, while British Columbians are faced with rising Hydro bills, clean-up costs and toxins in their waterways,” said Ana Simeon of Sierra Club BC. “It’s time for the provincial government to send a strong signal to the mining industry that they can’t get away with practices that endanger the health of our rivers and the livelihoods that depend on it.”

“This is not just a British Columbia issue,” said Will Patric, Executive Director of Rivers Without Borders. “In southeast Alaska, where wild salmon fishing is a way of life and the biggest driver of the economy, there is tremendous concern about an under-regulated BC mining industry putting the headwaters of rivers that flow into Alaska at risk. It’s time to bring BC mining law in to the 21st century.”

The Wilderness Committee publication, entitled Cleaning up BC’s Dirty Mining Industry, is being distributed throughout BC and into Alaska. The publication can be found online at:https://www.wildernesscommittee.org/publication/cleaning_bcs_dirty_mining_industry

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For more information, please contact:

Joe Foy | National Campaign Director, Wilderness Committee – (604) 880-2580

Ugo Lapointe | Canadian Program Director, MiningWatch Canada – (514) 708-0134

Ana Simeon | Peace Valley Campaigner, Sierra Club BC – (778) 677-4740

Will Patric | Executive Director, Rivers Without Borders – (360) 379-2811

Featured image by Kelly Michals via Flickr

Prevent Another Mount Polley Disaster

Tailings dams should be replaced with safer technologies, says the Mount Polley inquiry. But will this actually become law in B.C.?

Click here to take action before Oct 16

B.C. is in the throes of a new gold rush. Ten new mines have recently opened or are planned for major salmon watersheds in north-western B.C. alone. Will another 10 tailings dams be added to the 98 existing ones, waiting like toxic time bombs in watersheds across B.C.?

The new Mining Code currently being drafted could make a big difference. The B.C. government has committed to follow the recommendations of the Mount Polley inquiry which called for the phasing-out of tailings dams, use of Best Available Technologies, and stronger oversight and enforcement. The B.C. government has appointed a committee to draft changes to the Mining Code, and is inviting public comments by September 15.

Please take a few minutes now to submit a written comment. The comment period is open until October 16.

Mount Polley Mine

Mount Polley Mine, Photo by Photonomus

The committee tasked with reviewing the Mining Code has representatives from labour, industry and First Nations but no voices from the environmental community. The mining industry doesn’t want to see regulations that will require safer but costlier technologies. Honourable Bill Bennett, B.C.’s Minister of Energy and Mines, recently told Coast Alaska News that “tailings dams will continue to be a part of mining in British Columbia,” prompting concerns that the B.C. government may not give full effect to the Mount Polley recommendations.

To balance industry pressure to keep to business as usual and hold the B.C. government accountable, it is hugely important that the committee hears from a broad cross-section of British Columbians.

Currently, mining companies enjoy colonial-era privileges over all other industries and land uses from the moment a claim is staked. A thorough independent review has been eliminated from environmental assessments. Instead, the process relies on data supplied by the company, essentially allowing the industry to self-regulate. Poor oversight and weak enforcement ensure a race to the bottom when it comes to safety and environmental protections.

Mining shouldn’t mean toxic fish and water bans. If B.C. is serious about mining as an important part of our economy then we can’t afford to run this sector as if it was 1850 rather than 2015. From the Mount Polley inquiry it is obvious that B.C.’s mining regulations require a thorough overhaul. From the moment a company stakes a claim (for which the B.C government charges less than a cup of coffee per hectare), through the whole lifecycle of a mine and beyond, B.C. needs modern mining legislation that protects people’s health, safety and the environment.

Read our op-ed in the Georgia Straight.

A recent study commissioned by the First Nations examined 35 mine tailings dams in northern B.C. and found they threaten more than 230 communities, with the drinking water systems of Prince George, Terrace, and Smithers all at risk for contamination. Read Grand Chief Stewart Phillip’s op-ed in the Vancouver Sun.

B.C.’s mining legislation must respect the rights and title of First Nations, and the principle of free, prior, and informed consent enshrined in the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Tsilhqot’in case.

The environmental assessment process must be strengthened to include a thorough and independent third-party review, with hearings and ample opportunity for public participation.

If you agree that another Mount Polley should never be allowed to happen again, take action to urge the B.C. government to implement meaningful changes to the B.C Mining Code.

Info Graphic Mt Polley 2014-08

Photo courtesy of Fair Mining Collaborative