When Mines Minister Bill Bennett met with reporters at the legislature late Monday afternoon, he announced an innovative solution to a dispute over some coal mining licences that also heralded the future for resource development in B.C.
The specifics involved some 61 privately held mineral licences, together forming the basis for an anthracite coal mine in the Klappan region in the northwest of the province.
Together they also formed the basis for a decade-long standoff between the two private company holders of the licences and the Tahltan First Nation, in whose traditional territory the mining property was located.
The Tahltan opposed the project, a determination manifested with blockades going back 10 years. Thus stalled, the rights-holders — Fortune Minerals and POSCO Canada — had no practical option to develop their property, acquired in good faith in 2002.
Bad feelings over those properties threatened to spill over into other developments in the region, one of the richest in terms of mineral potential in the province.
B.C.’s push to develop mines in its shared watersheds with Alaska is under increasing scrutiny from the American side of the border.
Concerns over multiple proposed metal mines near the southeast Alaska border has drawn Alaska’s Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott — and a coterie of commercial fishing, conservation and First Nation groups — to British Columbia this week.
In a visit that coincides with mining week in B.C., Mallott will meet with B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett, Environment Minister Mary Polak, industry representatives and First Nation leaders.
The Alaskan fishing, conservation and aboriginal representatives are in B.C. to build alliances in their push for more scrutiny of the potential effects on Alaska waters that support a multi-billion-dollar fishery.
They believe that B.C.’s review process is not adequate and want Alaska to have a seat at a table, potentially through an international joint commission, to examine potential cumulative effects on water and salmon. The groups are also concerned about compensation if there is a disaster.
A delegation of Alaskans is coming to B.C. to voice concerns about the Mount Polley mine disaster and the possibility of a similar environmental catastrophe occurring near their border.
The Salmon Without Borders coalition, made up of First Nations leaders, commercial and sports fishing groups and conservation organizations, says mining activities in Northern B.C. threatens the livelihoods in southern Alaska.
Dozens of Canadian and American environmental groups, First Nations and businesses, as well as scientists and individuals, have called on the B.C. government to end the use of storing mine waste under water and behind earth-and-rock dams.
But Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said that is not going to happen in British Columbia. “I don’t think that’s in the cards for B.C. — or any other province in Canada — to adopt a policy where all you can use to manage tailings is dry-stack tailings,” Bennett said in an interview.
The demand from the U.S. and Canadian groups — sent in a letter Tuesday to Bennett and B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak — came as a result of Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley tailings dam failure last summer.
Monty Bassett, Documentary Filmmaker, 250-877-0961 or 250-847-5605
Chris Zimmer, Rivers Without Borders, 907-586-2166 or 907-988-8173, Zimmer@riverswithoutborders.org
Wade Davis, BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk, Professor of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, email@example.com
Diverse group of Alaska Tribes, members of First Nations, businesses, organizations, scientists and individuals calls for end to wet mine tailings storage in B.C.
Today a large and diverse group of Canadians and Americans called on the British Columbia (B.C.) government to halt the permitting of wet tailings facilities for new and proposed mines in B.C. based on the Independent Expert Panel recommendations on the Mount Polley mine tailings disaster. Eighty-seven Alaska Native tribes, members of B.C. First Nations, businesses, prominent individuals, scientists, and conservation groups signed a letter to the B.C. government calling for a shift to newer and safer dry tailings storage technology.
“Wet tailings impoundments are an unacceptable financial and environmental liability now and for future generations,” said letter organizer Monty Bassett. “A failure by the B.C. government to stop further construction of wet tailings storage facilities would be a blatant disregard for safety and its own commitments to adopt Best Available Technologies and Practices. Dry stack is a proven tailings technology. Mining industry complaints about costs fly in the face of the Mount Polley report recommendation that costs should not trump safety.”
These concerns are based on recommendations by the Independent Expert Engineering Investigation and Review Panel, which released a report on the Mount Polley tailings failure in January 2015. The report found that unless significant changes are made in the way B.C. tailings dams are designed and maintained, more failures can be expected. The report’s principal recommendation calls for an end to outdated “hundred year old” wet tailings storage and conversion to “dry stack” tailings systems. According to page 120 of the report, “Improving technology to ensure against failures requires eliminating water both on and in the tailings: water on the surface, and water contained in the interparticle voids. Only this can provide the kind of failsafe redundancy that prevents releases no matter what.”
“We cannot afford another Mount Polley, especially at mines like Red Chris or the proposed Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM), which are much bigger and will have more toxic acidic tailings,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders. “Unless there are major changes to B.C. tailings storage, we will soon see more dangerous dams built across B.C. and in the headwaters of major transboundary salmon rivers such as the Stikine, Taku and Unuk. These tailings dumps will be toxic time bombs poised upstream of vital salmon habitat.”
Despite the Mount Polley report’s recommendations, just days after the Panel released its report, B.C.’s Ministry of Energy and Mines issued an “interim operating” permit for a wet-tailings facility at the Red Chris mine in northwestern B.C., in the headwaters of the transboundary, salmon-rich Stikine River. The interim permit expires May 4, 2015. The Red Chris facility, also owned by Imperial Metals, is similar to the one that failed at Imperial Metal’s Mount Polley mine in August, releasing almost 25 million cubic meters (6.6 billion gallons) of mine waste water and tailings into the Fraser River watershed.
“It is reckless for B.C. to permit the kind of outdated watered tailings facility at Red Chris that failed at Mount Polley and that the expert panel specifically recommends against,” said Zimmer. “The panel called Mount Polley a ‘loaded gun’ and B.C. is loading the chamber at Red Chris.”
According to an independent expert report commissioned by Imperial Metals, “any failure of the Red Chris impoundment will likely have a much more significant environmental impact than the Mount Polley failure.” This is also true of other mines such as KSM. The proposed KSM tailings facility is roughly six times that of Mount Polley’s.
“We know that a dam failure at mines like Red Chris or KSM could have far worse consequences than Mount Polley, yet the B.C. government and the mining industry are avoiding the one thing that could reduce the risk of such a failure,” said Zimmer. “The costs of such failures to downstream communities could dwarf the costs of implementing changes now.”
The lessons of Mount Polley show that tailings failures are very difficult and expensive to clean up, there are no insurance policies for tailings dams, mine company bonding doesn’t pay for accidents or disasters, and there are no clear mechanisms to compensate injured parties. Industry often can’t pay, which means either B.C. taxpayers end up paying for substantial environmental liabilities, or cleanup and compensation doesn’t happen.
“What we are saying is to do Red Chris right,” said author Wade Davis, who owns a lodge at the base of Mount Todagin where Red Chris is situated. “In the wake of Mount Polley, how can we trust wet tailings storage? Can we not expect the safest mine technology possible from Imperial Metals?”
The letter was sent to Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines; Mary Polak, Minister of Environment; Al Hoffman, Chief Inspector of Mines; Diane Howe, Deputy Chief Inspector of Mines; Norm MacDonald, MLA, Opposition Critic for Energy and Mines; and Doug Donaldson, MLA, Stikine.
BC Hydro has exceeded the budgets on four major transmission line projects in recent years, with the combined overruns totalling half a billion dollars.
The biggest overrun was on the Northwest Transmission Line, constructed to supply electricity to mines and other developments in the northwest corner of the province.
Budgeted at $395 million when Premier Christy Clark took office four years ago, the project had multiple upward revisions, the largest approved by the BC Hydro board just days after the last provincial election.
“Disappointing,” Finance Minister Mike de Jong called it. Which didn’t begin to capture the now-they-tell-us outrage from the New Democrats, rightly suspecting Hydro of holding back on the bad news until the votes were counted.
The Northwest line is now complete, with the finance ministry reporting the finished price at $716 million (“trailing costs remain”), down a bit from the high-water-mark budget of $746 million reported just after the election.
Only in the realm of government finance would the lower finished cost be characterized as coming in “under budget.” More accurate to say final cost was 80 per cent higher than the first budget.
Imperial Metals Corp., owner of the mine that caused Canada's worst mining disaster in history, has started limited production at an even bigger mine, which could be a threat to Alaska's $2-billion annual salmon and tourism business.
Meanwhile, Imperial has applied for a temporary restart of Mount Polley Mine, where a tailings storage pond failed in August 2014, spewing 4.3 billion gallons of water and 10.3 million cu yd of mine tailings and construction waste into two lakes and a creek that are part of the Fraser River watershed in British Columbia.
The Mount Polley spillage affected Quesnel Lake—a fjord-type lake in which salmon spawn—dumping chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, silver, vanadium and zinc. Hazeltine Creek, between Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, got those same minerals as well as arsenic, manganese, mercury, nickel, thallium and titanium.
However, the other British Columbia mines—under construction, in startup or still undergoing assessment—pose a greater threat: acids that are common in copper and gold mining and other metals toxic to aquatic life.
The effects from Mount Polley "may take years to be felt by salmon," thanks to the metals bound to sediment settling in the lake bottom, says Aaron Hill, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society. The greater danger, he says, is with the other mines.
"Even though Mount Polley was one of the biggest environmental disasters in Canadian history, the impact would be much worse from a catastrophic failure at a project like Red Chris and KSM [Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell] that are acid- draining, with much larger tailings impoundments," he says.
"KSM, which was quietly approved by the federal government over the Christmas holiday, would have two tailings impoundments around the same size as Hoover Dam," he adds.
After the catastrophic failure of the Mount Polley mine tailings dam last summer, an expert engineering panel appointed by the B.C. government called for a major shift in how to deal with mine waste.
The panel recommended a move away from the conventional method of storing waste behind dams. But companies in British Columbia with proposals for large, open-pit metal mines have no plans, at least for now, to follow the panel’s recommendation, a review by The Vancouver Sun has found.
Among the conventional proposals is Seabridge Gold’s $5.4-billion KSM copper-gold project that includes a 239- metre-high earth dam, which would be among the highest in the world. It would store more than two billion tonnes of tailings under water, 27 times more than the amount of tailings stored at Mount Polley northeast of Williams Lake in the Interior.
The KSM mine has already been approved by the B.C. and Canadian governments, and the company is seeking a partner to finance the massive project.