Mount Polley Mine disaster, British Columbia
Early in the morning of August 4, 2014, the tailings pond dam at the Mount Polley Mine breached and released an estimated 25 million cubic metres of polluted water and mine waste into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake. The contamination eventually reached the Fraser River, one of Canada’s most important salmon habitats. It was Canada’s largest ever environmental catastrophe by volume and waters in the region remain polluted nearly four years later.
Water and communities under threat
Canada has more mine tailings spills than any other country in the world except China.
After the Mount Polley disaster, a risk assessment highlighted that British Columbia can expect two tailings dam failures every 10 years unless significant changes are made to current mining practices.
An analysis of 35 tailings dams at 26 mine sites in northern B.C. showed that 8,678 km of streams, rivers, and lakes lie downstream of the flow paths of contaminants if the dams fail, and that 33 First Nations communities could be impacted, including 17 in the immediate flow paths. First Nations communities further upstream could also be affected because of downstream impacts to migrating fish.
Three major salmon rivers, the Taku, Stikine and Unuk, flow into Alaska from an area in B.C. where 10 new mines have been proposed, approved or are already operating. One of them, the KSM Mine, would be the largest open pit gold and copper mine in North America. Its proposed tailings pond would be behind a 239-metre high dam – taller than the Hoover dam – towering over the Bell Irving/Nass watershed near the Sulphurets Creek, which runs into the Unuk River.
Some of B.C.’s mining laws were created over 150 years ago during the gold rush era of the 1850s to help settle the colony. Today, mining activity is still given priority over virtually all other land uses in the province. The ‘right of free entry’ has not evolved with environmental and societal norms. Mining gets a free pass from zoning bylaws and land use plans that apply to other sectors and does little to respect First Nations rights and title or private property.
In Alaska, where mining and environmental regulations are stricter than in B.C., local politicians and business, fishing, community and environmental groups believe B.C.’s mining regulations are too weak to prevent another Mount Polley disaster in shared watersheds. They are pushing for Alaskan input into B.C. mine approvals close to relevant salmon-bearing rivers.
Affected communities are demanding that the B.C. and federal governments honour their commitments to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and ensure that mining in the province complies with the spirit of the declaration.
Where B.C. falls short
In a scathing report in 2016 following an audit of compliance and enforcement of the B.C. mining sector, the province’s Auditor General stated that almost all of her expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program were not met. She concurred with the Mount Polley report that “business as usual” cannot continue.
The compliance and enforcement activities of both the Ministry of Energy and Mines, and the Ministry of Environment are not set up to protect the province from environmental risks “after nearly a decade of neglect”. She found major gaps in resources, planning and tools in both ministries, which meant monitoring and inspections of mines were inadequate to ensure mine operators complied with requirements.
The report also found that there was a shortfall of more than $1.3-billion in the bonds mining companies must provide to government to cover potential reclamation costs. This liability gap could potentially fall to taxpayers if the mining companies default on their obligations. Alaska requires full bonding at on-set of projects.
Given the inadequate regime and historical lack of bond requirements, B.C. also has a legacy of contaminated sites for which no responsible party can be found. There are over 1,800 orphaned and abandoned mines throughout the province, of which currently 84 are slated for reclamation from the Crown Contaminated Sites Program for an estimated $508-million according to the 2016 biennial report of the Crown Contaminated Sites Program.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Lac Megantic’s rail disaster, actions were immediately taken to remedy rules and regulations, and to create an industry fund to cover compensation and ensure taxpayers are safeguarded from the costs of disasters. Nothing similar has been set up since Mount Polley in spite of calls to do so.
Fines for environmental damage in Canada are meagre compared to the U.S. The largest penalty ever in Canada, $7.5-million, was levied on Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. in 2017 for environmental infractions – including a 200,000-cubic metre tailing pond spill into fish-bearing water – at its Bloom Lake iron ore mine in northeastern Quebec.
Imperial Metals has faced no fines or charges for the Mount Polley disaster. B.C.’s statute of limitations has passed and a private prosecution was quashed leaving only the Federal Fisheries Act with potential for enforcing some level of accountability. The fact that there are no consequences resulting from the largest, most well-documented mining disaster in Canadian history, is a dramatic illustration of the inability of B.C.’s laws to protect the environment and impacted communities.
The threat facing B.C. mining companies
The province’s failure to enforce mining regulations and honour its United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous People commitments, and bad practices at mine sites means B.C. has little hope of its natural resources playing a key role in the global transition to a low-carbon future, which the industry says can happen.
An increasing number of organizations are signing on to the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance’s Standard for Responsible Mining which seeks to emulate for industrial-scale mine sites what has been done with certification programs in organic agriculture, responsible forestry and sustainable fisheries.
Owners of mines that fail to meet the standard, which includes social and environmental responsibility, risk being bypassed as suppliers in much the same way that B.C. forestry companies were shunned until they improved their logging practices.