British Columbiaâ€™s ongoing legacy of metal mine impacts, reportPublished by MAC on 2021-02-26
Source: The Narwhal, BC Local News
There are 116 known or potentially contaminated mine sites that threaten wildlife and communities.
A new report released by SkeenaWild Conservation Trust in partnership with the Lake Babine Nation outlines major deficiencies in British Columbia government regulations and monitoring, and impacts to the aquatic community of Babine Lake, related to two decommissioned mines.
The Babine Lake, the longest natural lake in the province, is an important nursery habitat for 30 populations of sockeye salmon. About 90 per cent of all sockeye salmon in the Skeena watershed start their lives there. The lake carries great significance to Lake Babine Nation. Two decommissioned mines owned by Glencore Canada — Granisle and Bell — have been discharging wastewater contaminated with metals into the north end of Babine Lake since they were operational. Granisle operated from 1966 to 1982 and Bell from 1972 to 1992.
The report demonstrates that current permits regulating discharges of mine-impacted water from the decommissioned mines are limited in extent and stringency. The province only requires Glencore to do very sporadic monitoring of Babine Lake water, sediment and fish. Such monitoring is only required once every 10 years at one Bell discharge site and isn’t required at all at some Granisle sites. Sockeye salmon by both mines aren’t monitored.
The Bell and Granisle mines are emblematic of a much bigger problem in B.C. According to a map recently published by SkeenaWild and the BC Mining Law Reform Network, there are 116 known or potentially contaminated mine sites that threaten water, wildlife and communities across the province.
See full report at: Ongoing legacy of metal mine impacts on Babine Lake
Also on MAC:
Two decommissioned mines could be harming the water and aquatic life at Babine Lake
Report finds contamination and poor monitoring of Bell and Granisle mines.
Priyanka Ketkar, BC Local News
Feb. 18, 2021
Two decommissioned copper mines that continue to discharge mine-impacted water into Babine Lake, lack proper monitoring and government regulations, says a report released by researchers with SkeenaWild Conservation Trust in partnership with the Lake Babine Nation.
The report, released last month by the trust, has discovered that the two open-pit mines — Bell and Granisle mines, have been out of commission for several years and yet continue to discharge treated and untreated mine-impacted water into the Babine Lake, that could potentially affect the aquatic life in the lake, especially the sockeye salmon, a major food source for many.
“We heard particularly from Indigenous groups like Lake Babine Nation that there is some concerns, questions, people weren’t really sure whether the mines were being monitored adequately, whether there are potential impacts to the lake, so we wanted to take a look at the monitoring data that is available over the past few years just to see whether we can find any red flags and what we ended up finding was bigger than that. There are larger overarching problems with how the mines are regulated and monitored. We also found evidence of aquatic impacts,” said Adrienne Berchtold, ecologist and mining impacts researcher with the trust.
According to the report, the current permits regulating discharges from Bell and Granisle mines are limited in extent and stringency. The provincial government is responsible for giving permits to the mines to release certain amount of impacted water into local streams and lakes.
The report found that the Granisle mine site does not have any volume or quality limits applied to its multiple discharge sources. One source of Granisle’s discharge to the lake had average copper concentrations 20 times higher than the provincial guideline and nearly 250 times higher than the threshold for negative effects to salmon reported in the scientific literature.
Permits for Bell mine allow high discharge concentrations of some harmful contaminants such as copper, iron, and zinc and leave many other contaminants – such as aluminum, cadmium, and selenium, all of which are known to harm salmon at elevated concentrations – completely unregulated. Discharge permits for Bell mine allow metal concentrations up to 25 times higher than provincial water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life.
According to Berchtold, while the findings are not a secret and could be found in the monitoring reports written by the company Glencore Canada Corporation, they are difficult to get access to as a lot of those reports aren’t made public.
“We found that the sediment in the lake has quite an elevated level of copper and the water quality near the mines is elevated in copper and sulphates. We also found that the tissues in the fish in the lake, have elevations of a number of metals and in the cases of some metals like copper and cadmium, the elevations are above levels that are known to be frequently associated with negative effects such as their sensory abilities could get impacted, often that would mean they have trouble finding food, trouble avoiding gradation and sometimes metal contamination can affect their reproduction as well,” said Berchtold.
The report discovered that the aquatic monitoring program of Babine Lake also contains significant gaps that severely limit the monitoring information obtained and tracking of mine-related aquatic impacts.
The report raises concerns that these mines could be impacting the salmon in Babine lake and in the long term would have serious impacts on the salmon run as the lake provides for 90 per cent of the watershed’s sockeye salmon. However, lack of focused monitoring on sockeye salmon has resulted in insufficient data and gaps in information to determine the effects on the food fish.
Greg Knox, executive director of the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust said, “Sockeye salmon really is the foundation of food fishing for First Nations, for the commercial fishery and also supports the recreational fisheries in the Skeena system and we need pressure to change practices at these mine sites to ensure that salmon in Babine lake are protected.”
“Our hope is to start a dialogue, catch the attention of the mining companies and the government to discuss how the monitoring of these closed mines can be improved. Increasing awareness and getting as many voices behind us is sort of the hope,” said Berchtold.
British Columbia’s ‘dirty secret’: more than 100 contaminated mine sites threaten water, wildlife and communities
Feb. 6, 2021
Decades after closing, an open-pit copper mine in northwest B.C. is still discharging wastewater with metal concentrations 250 times higher than what’s considered safe for salmon into Babine Lake, the sockeye salmon engine of the Skeena River watershed, according to a new report by SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and Lake Babine Nation. And the situation at the Granisle mine — one of two decommissioned mines on the lake — is indicative of what’s happening across the province.
“People are particularly concerned about the health of the lake because of its importance for sockeye salmon production in the watershed,” Adrienne Berchtold, co-author of the report, told The Narwhal.
Babine Lake, the longest natural lake in the province, is an important nursery habitat for 30 populations of sockeye salmon. About 90 per cent of all sockeye salmon in the Skeena watershed start their lives there. The Skeena sockeye population has declined about 70 per cent over the past 100 years, according to Simon Fraser University researcher Michael Price.
Two decommissioned mines owned by Glencore Canada — Granisle and Bell — have been discharging wastewater contaminated with metals into the north end of Babine Lake since they were operational. Granisle operated from 1966 to 1982 and Bell from 1972 to 1992.
The release of mining contaminants has negatively affected water, sediment and fish, according to the report. For instance, bottom-dwelling fish have persistently elevated levels of copper in their bodies, which affect their ability to smell — a sense they rely on to find food and avoid predators. The situation has worsened in recent years and the most polluted fish are always found closest to the mines.
Despite the worsening situation, B.C. permits the Bell mine to discharge wastewater with metal concentrations up to 25 times higher than provincial water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life into the lake. The province has no guidelines for Granisle, which discharges untreated wastewater into the lake at three sites. At one of these sites, the discharge has copper concentrations that are on average 20 times higher than the provincial guidelines for the protection of aquatic life and nearly 250 times higher than the threshold for negative effects on salmon, according to the report.
The province only requires Glencore Canada to do very sporadic monitoring of Babine Lake water, sediment and fish. Such monitoring is only required once every 10 years at one Bell discharge site and isn’t required at all at some Granisle sites. Sockeye salmon by both mines aren’t monitored.
“We’re in dire straits,” Lake Babine Nation fisheries manager Donna MacIntyre told The Narwhal. “Our wild salmon populations are in the red zone … and [salmon are] the backbone of our culture. These fish are so important to us and basically we’re not monitoring their health.”
The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy was unable to provide an interview but told The Narwhal in an emailed statement it works with the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation and the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office to manage long-term risks associated with closed mines.
The ministry also said it received the report and is committed to addressing the identified issues.
The Bell and Granisle mines are emblematic of a much bigger problem in B.C. According to a map recently published by SkeenaWild and the BC Mining Law Reform Network, there are 116 known or potentially contaminated mine sites that threaten water, wildlife and communities across the province.
“Our research shows that there’s contaminated mine sites littered across the province,” Greg Knox, executive director at SkeenaWild, told The Narwhal in an interview.
The map shows 173 coal and metal mines, both active and inactive, and includes all of B.C.’s major mines as well as historical mines with high levels of production. The information is based on data from the province, mining companies, regulatory bodies and other sources. The authors said information on the contamination risk of 55 mines sites was not available, but noted “many seem likely to have some contamination concern, given their location and deposit geology.”
Acid rock drainage — in which heavy metals and sulfuric acid leach into the water, threatening the ecosystem — is a concern at 71 sites, many of which are likely to encounter water contamination issues even if mitigation efforts are undertaken. The Bell and Granisle mines illustrate that even with water treatment, mine discharges still contain a cocktail of contaminants.
Of the 173 sites on the map, only two have been shown to pose no immediate threat of water contamination.
The map report illustrates the effects of mine pollution by highlighting the situation at several infamous B.C. sites — Tulsequah Chief, Mount Polley, Teck’s coal mines in the Elk Valley and Copper Mountain — all of which have caused significant water pollution.
For instance, the Tulsequah Chief mine has been leaking acid rock drainage into the Taku watershed near the B.C.-Alaska border for more than 60 years and cleanup efforts have been delayed by bureaucracy and the former owner’s receivership proceedings.
Similarly, the Mount Polley mine continues to release wastewater with little or no treatment into Quesnel Lake six and a half years after the tailings pond collapsed, spilling 24 million cubic metres of waste into a creek and the lake, a source of drinking water and a major spawning ground for sockeye salmon. The waste is laden with contaminants up to 800 times higher than the lake’s natural background levels, according to the map report.
Knox said it’s in the best interest of the province to address this problem and start taking action to reduce the pollution.
“We always see the government promoting the industry and touting how clean it is and how well-positioned we are to sell our minerals as clean and responsibly sourced when in fact they have this massive contaminated mine site problem across the province,” he said. “B.C. has a dirty secret, but they don’t want the world to find out about it because it’ll put their whole sales pitch at risk.”
Nikki Skuce, co-chair of the BC Mining Law Reform Network, agreed.
“At the very least we should have public transparency where the problems even are,” she said in an interview. “It’s hard to prioritize sites for cleanup if you don’t know what the problems are.”
Knox said there’s a clear need to at minimum prioritize any known or potential pollution from sites near salmon habitat.
“[Babine Lake] is Canada’s largest sockeye-producing system and if the province can’t even do its due diligence here, then what are they doing across the rest of the province?”
Following the Mount Polley disaster, B.C.’s auditor general produced a damning report about the province’s lack of sufficient regulations in the mining sector.
While the province has addressed some of the recommendations in the report, including launching a collaborative compliance and enforcement division, there are still significant gaps in how the province manages monitoring and pollution at old mine sites.
B.C. requires mining companies to create reclamation plans, which include aquatic monitoring, and have them approved by the government. But the scope and frequency of aquatic monitoring is largely left to the mining companies’ discretion, according to Berchtold.
In some cases, like at the Babine Lake mines, aquatic monitoring programs do not include sampling water, sediment and fish in all potentially impacted areas, nor do they include sampling all potentially impacted species like plankton and aquatic plant life, according to the map report. The Bell and Granisle monitoring plans also don’t include taking sufficient “clean” samples from other parts of the lake to provide baseline data.
“We don’t have the right rules, guidelines, policies or regulations in place to ensure regular, adequate monitoring and guidelines for what reclamation actually looks like,” Skuce said.
Berchtold agreed and said the province gives mining companies a long leash when it comes to long-term maintenance of a closed mine site.
“The government doesn’t necessarily take enough of a stance on what monitoring should look like,” she said. “They defer to the professionals that are hired by the company and obviously the company has an interest to not look too heavily into whether they’re causing negative impacts because they don’t want to deal with the cleanup costs and the negative publicity that might come with that.”
Companies are also required to submit annual reports to ensure they are in compliance with provincial regulations and the government periodically inspects sites. However, as Skuce said, “the standards for … government inspection are very vague. The policy guidelines regarding old mines is that they should be inspected ‘from time to time.’ What does that mean? Who’s getting to decide?”
The province also allows pollution, like the discharge of elevated levels of copper, at old mine sites.
While the permits regulating waste discharge at the Bell mine set limits on contaminants like copper and zinc, they don’t regulate other contaminants like aluminum, cadmium and selenium. The province also allows for unregulated discharges at the Granisle mine and hasn’t set any limits on the amount of contaminants in the untreated discharge entering the lake.
Not only that, the fees stipulated under B.C.’s Environmental Management Act for this pollution are insufficient, Berchtold said.
The cost to Glencore for putting all this copper into the lake is a paltry $330.62 per tonne. And for sulphates, which Berchtold said are in some cases being discharged at 650 times above the lake’s natural background levels, the company only has to pay $4.85 per tonne.
“It’s obviously not enough,” said Berchtold, explaining that a mining company taking care of a closed, unprofitable mine needs more incentive than the loss of a few hundred bucks to invest in costly improvements to its water treatment facilities.
Berchtold said she’s troubled by a lack of government action based on what companies are reporting.
“[Glencore Canada] say flat out there are elevated levels of this such-and-such metal in the sediment and in the fish tissue, but I haven’t seen any evidence that anyone within the Ministry of Environment is actually reviewing these reports, looking at the data that’s been collected and addressing the fact that there are impacts occurring.”
As the mining map report illustrated, the nature and scale of contamination at many closed and abandoned mine sites is unknown and provincial regulations around gathering data allow potential pollution to continue indefinitely.
Knox said their work on the Bell and Granisle mines is just the start. “We’re going to continue our work to investigate individual mines to see if they have adequate monitoring and pollution problems.”
The Babine Lake report included a series of recommendations to address the problems at the mines, some of which can be implemented at mines across the province.
It said the province should require permits for all discharges of treated and untreated wastewater, including the unregulated discharges from the Granisle mine. It recommended B.C. establish clear thresholds for the levels of contaminants that will negatively impact species based on the best available science and present a clear plan for what happens if those thresholds are exceeded. It also pointed out that aquatic monitoring programs should include all areas that are potentially impacted, and companies should sample water, sediment and fish tissue from elsewhere in the lake for comparison.
The report also recommended the province require companies to monitor the effects of the mine discharges on other parts of the aquatic ecosystem such as plankton, the main food source for juvenile sockeye.
Importantly, it said salmon should be included in monitoring programs.
MacIntyre said this is a priority.
“If we’re not looking at these little babies in our nursery lake, looking at their health and the effects of all of this mine discharge, by the time we figure anything out, it’s going to be too late,” she said. “I think that we could start now — and maybe we’ll have a bit of a hope.”
Berchtold said the first step is to find out if the fish are using the area around the mine sites. If sockeye do congregate in the areas where the mines are discharging effluent, she said catching the fish to take samples and then releasing them would be a simple and effective way to determine if the water quality is impacting the salmon’s ability to navigate.
In an emailed statement to The Narwhal, Glencore Canada argued that because sockeye migrate out of the lake and spend most of their lives in the ocean, it’s impossible to evaluate the potential impacts of the mines’ discharges on them, but it said it will consider the report’s recommendations when reviewing its aquatic monitoring program.
“In the future, Glencore would be happy to report on any non-lethal information for sockeye salmon smolt that may be caught as part of our aquatic monitoring program,” the statement said.
While these recommendations would strengthen environmental protection at old mine sites, they don’t address the fact that the company is still in charge of assessing its own impacts, which, as Berchtold pointed out, is a conflict of interest.
Other organizations also have ideas of how to address the problem.
A 2019 report from the BC Mining Law Reform Network made 69 detailed recommendations to the province to better protect the public and the environment from mines. Those recommendations include expanding civil liability for companies to ensure they pay for pollution, mandating clear risk-based inspection policies for all mines including closed and abandoned sites and requiring independent analyses of water treatment systems that take into account the full long-term costs of a mine’s lifecycle.
In July, the First Nations Energy and Mining Council and the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre released a report calling on the province to support an Indigenous guardians network, which would provide First Nations across the province the training and resources needed to monitor resource-based activity on their territories.
That monitoring would include Indigenous guidance on activities like mine closure, reclamation, monitoring and waste management.
MacIntyre welcomed the idea.
“We’re the caretakers of the land. We’re the stewards of Babine Lake.”
New Map Shows Dozens of Mine Pollution Threats in BC
January 19th, 2021
(Vancouver/Terrace) – Today, SkeenaWild and the BC Mining Law Reform network released new maps (here & here) pointing to over a hundred known and potentially contaminated mine waste sites that threaten to pollute waters, fish habitat and communities across the province.
Concerns over mining have been growing since the 2014 Mount Polley disaster and 2016 Auditor General report calling for significant reforms to protect BC’s waterways and communities. “The new map highlights the massive scale of the problem and provides information that has not been made available by the Ministry of Energy & Mines” stated Greg Knox, Executive Director, SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
Mining poses risks of water contamination from acid mine drainage and heavy metal and pollutant leaching. At times this can result in the need for water treatment in perpetuity which can cost taxpayers millions, as with the Britannia Mine that has cost $40 million for clean-up to date and an additional $3 million annually to reduce acid mine drainage and heavy metals from entering Howe Sound.
“This map highlights dozens of mine sites that are polluting or putting our waters and communities at risk of contamination. We need to reform mining laws in B.C. to put safety and clean water first,” said Nikki Skuce, Co-chair, BC Mining Law Reform Network.
The BC Mining Law Reform Network represents 30 local, provincial and national organizations from a wide range of sectors calling for reforms to BC’s weak mining laws, and a lack of enforcement and oversight in a context of increased demand for minerals.
“The information on the map was challenging to uncover. How can we begin to investigate these potentially mine-damaged waters and monitor the extent of the pollution, when the information is not even available to the public?” asks Knox.
The Association of Mineral Exploration of BC (AMEBC) is hosting their annual conference RoundUp online that will include a session on the growing importance of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) investing on January 21.
“There are a few key reforms BC needs to make around mine tailings safety and water protection, and ensuring that the polluter actually pays before it can promote itself as a responsible mining jurisdiction,” said Skuce.
Facts & Highlights
- The map displays 173 coal and metal mines across B.C., including all major mines as well as historic mines where a significant amount of ore was extracted (i.e., over 300,000 tonnes if production ceased before 1985, or over 10,000 tonnes if production ceased during or after 1985). The map specifies whether mines are proposed (16), operating (17), in care and maintenance (17), closed/abandoned (84), or historic sites that are being redeveloped for further mining (39).
- Only 2 of the 173 sites on the map are demonstrated to pose no current water contamination threat.
- 116 of the sites on the map have either already contaminated the surrounding environment, or have the known potential to do so. Of these, acid mine drainage is a concern at 71 sites, many of which will still encounter water contamination issues even if acidic drainage is mitigated.
- 55 of the sites on the map have no publicly available information about their contamination risk (though many seem likely to have some contamination concern, given their location and deposit geology).
- The map does not depict the additional 130 mineral exploration sites throughout the province that may also cause water pollution in the future.
Five Examples of Ongoing Mine Water Pollution in B.C.:
1. Tulsequah Chief Mine (Chieftain Metals, closed)
- Tulsequah Chief has been leaking acid mine drainage into the Taku watershed near the B.C.-Alaska border for over 60 years.
- As well as being highly acidic, the contaminated water includes copper and zinc, among other contaminants, at levels far exceeding BC Water Quality standards.
- The BC remediation plan was released in 2020 with three different options for controlling and addressing the water contamination issues (see Rivers Without Borders).
- The estimated cost for remediation is close to $60 million, with annual costs of over a million. The BC government has only collected just over a $1 million reclamation bond for Tulsequah Chief.
2. Mount Polley Mine (Imperial Metals, care & maintenance)
- The Mount Polley mine tailings pond collapsed on Aug. 4, 2014, spilling 24 million cubic metres of solid and liquid mine wastes into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake, a source of drinking water and major spawning ground for sockeye salmon.
- Despite repeated claims by the company that the mine wastes pose no threats, researchers have found that resuspension of spill-related material off the bottom of the West Basin is occurring and prolongs the exposure of aquatic ecosystems to contaminants. Bacteria are also being found around the tailings waste that could be affecting fish.
- Since the disaster, Imperial Metals has been permitted to release ongoing discharge of large volumes of liquid mine waste into Quesnel Lake, with little to no treatment, and with contaminants up to 800 times higher than the lake’s natural background levels. The Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake captured the discharge pipes on video
- To date, no penalties, charges or fines have been laid against Mount Polley for the disaster.
3. Elk Valley Watershed – Wide Selenium Pollution (Teck coal mines)
- Selenium pollution from waste rock dumps left from Teck’s mountain-top removal coal mines in the Rocky Mountains flows into the Elk River and then into the Kootenay River, hundreds of kilometers downstream through Montana, Idaho and back into BC.
- Selenium pollution (which can be found in neutral pH drainage) can cause deformities and reproductive failure in fish and started rising in the Elk Valley watershed in the early 90s. Despite BC monitoring showing harmful levels of pollution, the province approved expansion of four of Teck’s mines, permitting levels of selenium that are known to threaten fish health. Teck is currently proposing a large expansion at the headwaters of the Elk (Castle Mountain mine) which has started a federal and provincial environmental assessment process.
- From 2017 to 2019, 93% of adult westslope trout in the upper Fording River disappeared. This stretch of river is the most heavily polluted major river in the Elk Valley, with selenium levels reaching more than a hundred times higher than BC’s Water Quality Guidelines.
- Late last year, Teck was issued an order to improve water quality by Environment Canada under the Fisheries Act because of the increasing evidence of impacts to westslope cutthroat trout and other species from their growing selenium and other water pollution.
4. Copper Mountain Mine (Copper Mountain and Mitsubishi – operating)
- Seepage from the West dam is currently discharging directly into the Similkameen River at 60 litres/second (5.2 million litres per day).
- Water quality on the upper Similkameen and particularly its tributaries are trending in a downward direction for sulfate, nitrate, selenium and other key pollutants, often exceeding BC Water Quality guidelines.
- A key area of concern is high levels of arsenic near the Washington border.
- Since restarting in 2011, the mine has been out of compliance on effluent discharge issues at least 25 times.
5. Bell and Granisle Mines (Glencore Canada Corporation – closed)
- These are two closed open-pit copper mines on the shores of Babine Lake, which produces 90% of the Skeena watershed’s sockeye salmon.
- Both mines have acid rock drainage potential, and discharge wastewater directly into the lake that can contain copper concentrations up to 20x greater than provincial water quality guidelines, as well as a number of other elevated contaminants.
- Since mining operations were active, discharges from both mines have caused metal contamination to water, sediment and fish in Babine Lake.
- This contamination continues today: mine-exposed sediments and bottom-dwelling fish are persistently elevated in copper beyond levels known to cause chronic negative impacts; concentrations of a number of metals have recently increased in water, sediment, and bottom-dwelling fish near the mines; and lake trout metal contamination throughout the lake has worsened over recent years, with the most polluted fish nearly always being found closest to the mines.