MAC: Mines and Communities

Canadian Lakes To Be Destroyed By Mining Companies, Critics Warn

Published by MAC on 2007-06-28

Canadian Lakes to be Destroyed by Mining Companies, Critics Warn

Kelly Patterson, The Ottawa Citizen

28th June 2007

Mining companies are poised to turn more than 20 lakes across Canada into toxic waste dumps by using a special exemption to federal environmental rules, critics say.

If the plans go ahead, lakes at mine sites from British Columbia to Newfoundland would effectively be wiped off the map, warns Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada, an Ottawa-based advocacy group.

A 2002 rule allows mining companies to redefine lakes as waste dumps, she says. That way, federal fish-protection laws don't apply, so the lakes can be used to house waste rock, which is often laced with heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury.

The rule acts "like a magic wand touching the lake and saying, 'This is no longer a lake'," says Ms. Coumans.

The companies must have federal approval, and must compensate for the move by enhancing fish habitat elsewhere.

Originally introduced to "grandfather" existing mines from stricter environmental rules that were introduced in 2002, the exemption has sparked "an explosion" of new projects over the past three years, Ms. Coumans said.

Last year, the first new exemption to the 2002 rules was approved, allowing Aur Resources Inc. to use two lakes near Buchans, N.L., as tailings ponds for its copper-zinc operation.

Two more mines have applied for the exemption: Agnico-Eagles Mines Ltd. and Miramar Mining Corp., both for projects in Nunavut.

Similar plans are in the works for more than a dozen others, Ms. Coumans said.

Sealing off a lake as a tailing pond is often cheaper than building a land dump; submerging mine waste in water also solves the problem of acid-rock drainage, a process where exposure to the air causes heavy metals in the rock to leach out from land dumps, proponents say.

Glen Hopky of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans could not confirm how many projects were expected to apply. He denies the exemption is being used as a loophole, saying it was not intended merely to grandfather a handful of old mines.

All such projects must first undergo a rigorous public-consultation process, he says.

Firms must also show they have made "careful consideration of the alternatives," he said, adding that the projects undergo a strict environmental assessment.

The department has a stiff policy that there should be "no net loss" of fish habitat, he said.

Fisheries officials assess the "productive capacity" of the lakes to determine how many "fish habitat units" they provide. The company must then match that number by restoring or enhancing fish habitats in the area.

"It's a bit of a bookkeeping exercise," Mr. Hopky said.

In the case of Aur Resources, the firm promised to restore fish habitat in a nearby stream that had been blocked by a now-defunct logging operation.

The Fisheries Department is "very experienced" in restoring fish habitats, he added.

But Ian Birtwell, a retired fisheries scientist who specializes in the effects of mining on aquatic life, said there is "no demonstrated success" of such efforts in the North, where dozens of lakes have been damaged by mining firms.

Diamond mines, for example, sometimes drain a lake in order to access deposits on the lakebed.

Under federal orders, many firms have launched fish restoration projects, none of which has been a proven success, he says.

"There's a perception that we know how to do this and we don't."

Not only is there "inadequate knowledge about how to compensate and restore" lakes that have been destroyed, but the long-term consequences of transforming a lake into a waste dump have not been explored, he said.

Once a lake is gone, it's gone forever, with unknown long-term consequences for the fish that were "transferred" elsewhere, he said.

"Who will be around to monitor ... (the situation) for tens if not hundreds of years ?"

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007
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