The lake my mother swam in
As a child, my mother learned to swim in Kamiskotia Lake. If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because it lends its name to a Hollinger mine, Kam Kotia Porcupine, 35 kilometres northwest of Timmins, Ontario and is the site of one of Canada’s worst mining disasters.
When the mine closed in 1972, no one was legally responsible for the massive tailings – piles of waste rock – that eventually seeped arsenic, lead, selenium, and other metals into local waterways. While residents became more and more alarmed about the health of their kids and safety of their water, the mine changed hands half a dozen times until it eventually became the responsibility of the crown. In 2000, after 30 years of contamination, the Ontario government launched a five- phased $47 million dollar clean-up and rehabilitation effort.
My family’s mining legacy
I come from a mining family. My grandfather Cyrille, his 12 brothers and sisters, their kids, and and their grandkids have all in some way benefitted from the mining industry. My late great uncle Clifford worked his whole life in the Hollinger mine shafts. His granddaughter carries on the family tradition for a company here in the northwest out of Smithers.
I also come from a family of outdoor men and women. My great aunt Edna, at 86, still runs her own trap line. Seeing grandpa Cyrille fly fishing is like watching a martial arts master, albeit a French catholic one, cursing and sneaking whiskey in time with his practiced steps. His lines dance on the water.
For the most part I feel proud of how hard my family has worked to lift us out of poverty and open doors for my generation. My cousins and I have access to hard fought opportunities – post-secondary education, while not easy, was possible. I am mobile enough to choose to live here in the Pacific Northwest, a place that makes me feel alive and connected.
Two disasters every ten years
In the early morning of August 4th 2014, the communities in the Quesnel Lake watershed experienced the unthinkable. A wet tailings dam for the nearby Mount Polley Mine burst, dumping over 10 million cubic meters of toxic slurry and mud containing selenium, lead, and arsenic into the river systems. The spill lasted four days but the financial and ecological impacts to those communities are still being felt. Locals described the spill as a death in their community. Their relationship to salmon severed, making their lives more precarious and uncertain.
There are 123 tailings dams at 60 mine sites throughout BC. Despite advice from experts, many of these dams are using or propose using the same wet tailings approach. If they go forward, we can expect an average of two dam failures every ten years.
Forty-eight watersheds in the northwest contain or are downstream of a tailings facility, the vast majority of which could be affected by multiple tailings dams. Among them are B.C.’s most iconic wild salmon rivers, including the Taku, Stikine, Unuk, Nass, Skeena, Fraser, Buckley and Babine to name a few.
Two hundred and forty-one communities are within a 22 kilometre contaminant flow path of a mine tailings dam, including Fort St. John, Prince George, Quesnel, Smithers, Terrace, and Williams Lake and Prince Rupert.
What are we inheriting in B.C.?
Every time one of these dams fails (and they will), someone has to clean it up. In the case of Mount Polley, taxpayers are picking up almost $40 million of the clean up tab. British Columbia does not require full financial assurances (bonding) from mining companies. Disasters like Kam Kotia and Mount Polley are a hefty price for us all to bear.
Our mining laws in B.C. haven’t changed in 150 years. That’s right, since the gold rush. The way mining is being done here in B.C. will plunge my generation into ecological and financial debt. We are spending our shrinking inheritance on cleaning up the mining industry’s messes.
When my dog and I walk down to the Skeena River in the spring or fall I bring my fishing rod, tackle, a knife, a bear bell, binoculars, a snack, and a camera. I know we’ll see bears, eagles, neighbours. Our rivers are the veins this region, what brings life to my community. And economic opportunity brings life to our community too – doing good work, especially that keeps people in the community, has been a struggle in our region. I wonder about how these two values - economic and ecological - live in me, in my family and in my community. What would it look like to make decisions for our watershed that put our long term health and prosperity first? What if they are not at odds, what if they are linked? What if my work, our work, is to reconcile these two values.
Making choices in times of uncertainty
Grandpa Cyrille was a ballistics guy before the Second World War. When it became clear to him (after a very stern talk from my grandmother Louise) that the mining lifestyle of long absences and dangerous work was detrimental to his wife and kids, he famously tossed his blasting gear over the side of a boat carrying him up the St. Lawrence on his way home to Timmins, as a symbol of his commitment to our future. He had no idea at the time what his life or our life would look like, but he knew he couldn’t continue doing what he had been doing. He to took the risk to make something completely new of his life and livelihood.
British Columbians have a choice to make. Do we want to build an economy centered on resilience, restoration, and sustainable growth? Do we want to maintain our wild salmon rivers and way of life, or do we want to cash in on the new gold rush and let our kids deal with the fall out?
While I can’t say exactly what responsible mining looks like for our region, I know it’s time we figured it out. More than ever I want to have these conversations in the northwest, to come together and learn together. Forging a new economic path together might feel risky in our uncertain times but northerners have always bet on the underdog. We’ve always beat the odds. We need to step up and defend our watersheds and way of life. I hope that the next generation can feel proud of our choices.
There is so much to do this summer to kick start this conversation.
Sign up to volunteer and I'll give you a call to get you plugged in.
What are mine tailings exactly? What’s the deal with acid mine drainage? Is ‘responsible mining’ really possible?
These were some of the questions I had for an engineer friend who has worked on mines in B.C. As a start to answering these questions, this friend pointed me to Mining America: the Industry and the Environment, 1800-1980.
I’m a literature major, so it may not be surprising that my reflexive response to taking a new role – in this case becoming an organizer in British Columbia with Salmon Beyond Borders – is to pick up a book. I like sinking in. Books give me more time to process information than news articles and scientific reports. So I was grateful for this book, which describes how people have perceived the American mining industry over the last 200 years, and in particular the industry’s impact on the environment. The author, Duane Smith, focuses on the United States of America, but I believe the themes apply in Canada as well. I don’t have a background in mining, but I found the book fascinating.
Three main points resonated with me:
1. Things have changed.
“The word environment would not have been recognized a century ago,” writes Smith.
He describes how miners and people in mining regions throughout the 1800s noticed effects – air filling with smoke, streams changing color, mountainsides being washed away with the development of hydraulic technology – but how rarely they labelled these changes as serious problems. People complained that the abandoned tools, piles of waste rock, and mountainsides stripped of trees for use in the smelters were unsightly, yes, but few voices rose loudly to raise concerns about the long-term health of the environment and people living nearby.
One man seeking to promote investment in his mining town talked about the level of arsenic in the air as beneficial for women’s complexions – totally without irony!
2. Things have stayed the same.
“The duty of government, in this earlier century [the 1800s], was not to regulate but to encourage development and to hand out unstintingly the natural resources and the public lands for private gain.”
“Not to regulate, but to encourage,” sounds to me like the exact description of the modern-day role of the government which was criticized and described in the British Columbia Auditor General’s May 2016 report, written after an investigation into the Mount Polley tailings dam failure. “To meet the provincial goals for new mines and mine expansions,” the report states, the Ministry of Mining and the Ministry of Environment, “are focusing on permit applications. As a result, there are few resources dedicated to the regulatory activities of monitoring.”
And even more recently, in February 2018, the B.C. provincial government announced a mining “task force” to advise the government on “measures it might implement to make B.C. the most attractive jurisdiction for investment in Canada.” It seems that encouraging development for private gain is still very much considered the “duty”of government.
3. Public opinion matters.
“As trite as it may sound, the buck does stop with the public. How much are we willing to pay, to sacrifice, and to accept in order to protect the environment?”
Smith describes how people in the later 1900s, from farmers to elected officials, began to push back against specific mining projects and to demand clean up and accountability from the mining industry. In spite of the industry's well-funded public relations campaigns and savvy lawyers, some projects were turned down and new regulations introduced. Even by the 1980s, when Smith concludes his historical survey, he feels confident stating, “Environmental stewardship is here to stay; only the form that it should take is a subject of debate.”
Engaging with mining is crucial, even if tricky. Mining has played a big role in the United States and Canada, and it will continue to play a role. Our job as citizens and residents is to take responsibility for grappling with questions such as: Where should mining take place? How should it be done? Who should benefit? And what are we willing to do to protect places we love?
Over the last four years of the Salmon Beyond Borders campaign, we’ve seen a groundswell of support throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Resolutions from dozens of Alaska municipalities and Tribes, and the calls from tens of thousands of local citizens, have driven engagement at all levels of government throughout the region and in Washington, D.C..
But as Alaskans downstream face a ticking clock, new B.C. transboundary mine projects have progressed from exploration to development and two have begun operations. On August 4, 2014, Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine tailings dam failed, releasing 24 million cubic meters of tailings waste into the Fraser River watershed. Less than one year later in 2015, the same company that operates Mt. Polley was authorized by the B.C. government to begin operations at its Red Chris mine in the Stikine-Iskut watershed, using the same kind of wet tailings storage technology that resulted in the Mt. Polley mine disaster. The State of Alaska, Alaska Tribes, and downstream municipalities were not notified or involved in the permitting of this project, regardless of the fact that the Red Chris mine tailings storage facility is seven times the size of Mt. Polley’s and holds back acid generating materials. In 2017 Brucejack mine began operations in the Unuk river watershed, which also is the proposed site for the acid-generating Kerr-Sulphurets Mitchell (KSM) project, owned by Seabridge Gold. KSM would be the largest open-pit mine in Canada, located only 30 kilometers from the Alaska - B.C. border.
Although experts like those who comprised the expert panel to review the Mt. Polley tailings dam failure, and the B.C. Auditor General, have all claimed that mining practices in British Columbia must improve, business continues as usual.
It’s time to ramp up our efforts and work with our neighboring communities… so Salmon Beyond Borders is officially going international!
Meet our new B.C. organizers, Celine Trojand and Mary Leighton!
Northwest B.C. is in the midst of a mining boom. One that’s happening out of the public eye, yet in one of the most pristine regions of the province. The Taku, Stikine, and Unuk rivers create intact watersheds that are critical habitat for some of the world’s most valuable salmon runs and wildlife. On the U.S. side of the border, these rivers are designated as National Monuments, National Forests, and wilderness areas with special protections. On the Canadian side of the border, these systems have no such protection and are being developed by a mining industry that the U.N. ranks as the second worst in the world, right behind China. And did you know that B.C. taxpayers are the ones who have to pay when disaster strikes on the BC side of the border?! British Columbians have already paid $40 million toward initial clean up of the Mt. Polley mine disaster, and that’s just scratching the surface of what needs to be done.
Here’s what we want: Binding international agreements between Canada, the U.S. and Indigenous Nations that address: financial liability, joint funding for ongoing water quality monitoring, and transparency in the permitting process across all jurisdictions.
Salmon Beyond Borders is working to educate and empower Alaska and B.C. communities to defend and sustain our rivers, jobs, and way of life.
To do that, we’re going to need support on both sides of the AK-B.C. border.
Share this blog post with your friends in BC, talk to your neighbors about this issue, invite them to check out our website and video and encourage them to add their name to our letter to Canadian and U.S. officials.
Interested in volunteering with us in B.C.? Contact Celine and Mary.
Mary Leighton is a third generation Vancouverite. She grew up sailing around the British Columbia coast, collecting sea grass and dropping crab traps. She was living abroad when in 2014 Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved the Enbridge oil pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the B.C. coast. She saw science being ignored and local communities being overruled, but she also saw the possibility of British Columbians coming together and successfully defending their province (which they did!). Mary moved back to Vancouver and started a new path in community organizing, volunteer training, and politics.
Now Mary is excited about the growing solidarity among people in the Pacific Northwest to defend the sacred places and the resources that have sustained people here for thousands of years – fresh water and wild salmon. She will be focusing her energies on raising awareness of "out of sight, out of mind" risks and developing local leaders in Southwestern B.C. She looks forward to connecting with people and building relationships for the long run.
Email Mary: email@example.com
Celine Trojand grew up on the prairies of Northeast BC but in 2009 she found her sea legs on board an old wooden fishing boat in the Douglas channel, travelling the proposed crude oil tanker route for the Enbridge Northern Gateway proposal. The boat smelled like tar and the weather got a bit rough but she caught her first salmon and attended a feast in Hartley Bay. What enduring love doesn’t start with food?
After her trip she committed (with the salmon as witness) to work with communities in defence of our land, air and water. In the decade since she’s made good on her promise and organized, trained, acted and strategized with dozens of BC’s most effective conservation groups. She’s learned that organized people can overcome anything – dysfunctional democracies, corporate agendas, social isolation and even foolhardy Texan business men. She’ll be focusing on building SBB support in Northwest BC and northern Vancouver Island.
Last year Celine moved to Kitwanga where she’s building a little house and dreaming of a day when our rivers are secure and abundant and she can finally run a small sled dog team.
Email Celine: firstname.lastname@example.org
In a year that otherwise felt politically divisive, Alaskans spoke with one voice on the issue of upstream Canadian mines threatening shared AK-B.C. transboundary salmon rivers.
We ended 2017 with a long-awaited letter from the State of Alaska and the entire Alaska congressional delegation to the U.S. State Department - an unprecedented and powerful show of unity on behalf of our rivers. Thank you for making this a reality. In their official response, the U.S. State Department acknowledged the concerns of Alaskans and outlined the steps they are taking to address those concerns. This international problem requires international solutions and with your help, we will hold them accountable to ensure these steps become real action.
We want to hear from you! Please take our one-minute survey to help us keep you up-to-date: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/N8XR279
In 2017, we had the chance to meet with many of you in person. You told us how important wild, healthy salmon and their productive habitat are to your way of life, and we heard through your stories the love you have for these rivers. It was only with your support that we all achieved so much last year, including...
In 2018, we’re going to keep pushing. We will travel to D.C. and B.C. to work with government leaders and to keep the heat on. We will continue to amplify this issue through our partnership with other states, including Montana, Washington, and Idaho, and our partners in B.C. And most of all, we will continue to work closely with you to defend our shared rivers, jobs, and way of life.
We want to hear from you! Please take our one-minute survey to help us keep you up-to-date: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/N8XR279
On August 4th, 2014, Mt. Polley mine’s tailings dam failed and released 6.6 billion gallons of toxic mine waste into British Columbia’s (B.C.’s) Fraser River watershed, just as the sockeye salmon were returning. An independent investigation of the spill found that the kind of earthen tailings dam used was fundamentally flawed - and that dams of these kind could be expected to fail twice every ten years. This same kind of tailings dam is currently used by Mt. Polley’s sister mine, the Red Chris Mine, in the Stikine River watershed upstream of Wrangell, Alaska.
Three years later, no charges or fines have resulted from the largest mining disaster in Canadian history. The minimal clean-up completed has been subsidized by the B.C. government and taxpayers, at an estimated $31.5 million in clean-up costs, which inspectors tied to “poor practices” and “non-compliance” as noted in the Bowker/Chambers report.
In addition, B.C.’s two-year audit of the B.C. Ministry of Environment and the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines, released in May of 2016, found that “almost all of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program were not met. As a result, monitoring and inspections of mines were inadequate to ensure mine operators complied with requirements.”
Lack of oversight, minimal financial liability, and a push to build new mines in B.C. has created a lethal combination for the transboundary salmon rivers of Southeast Alaska. Our neighbors in B.C. will feel the impacts of the Mt. Polley mine disaster forever - there is no clean-up that could ever return the Fraser River watershed to how it was before the Mt. Polley mine disaster.
“Our neighbors in B.C. will feel the impacts of the Mt. Polley mine disaster forever - there is no clean-up that could ever return the Fraser River watershed to how it was before the Mt. Polley mine disaster.”
Imagine such a disaster happening in the Taku River watershed upstream of Juneau, the Stikine River watershed, or the Unuk River watershed near Ketchikan. All three of these major salmon-producing rivers have Canadian mines either in exploration, development, or operation. And, if history serves, these mines will have little safety measures and no steps in place to protect Alaskans if something goes wrong.
You would think that after seeing the devastation of the Mt. Polley mine disaster, that the B.C. government would take action to protect their citizens, salmon, and land from such an event ever happening again. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Nothing has changed three years later and B.C.’s inaction continues to put Alaskans at risk.
There is no financial benefit for Alaskans when it comes to Canadian mines - only risk. We need your help to get that message out - we’re rallying voices at all levels:
With the three year anniversary approaching, we honor and remember those impacted by the disaster at Mount Polley and vow to continue doing our part to ensure this devastation will not happen again.
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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