The mining industry puts lives at risk with shoddy maintenance of dams built to contain mining waste.
By The Editorial Board
The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.
After the catastrophic rupture of a mine-tailings dam in Brazil last week, leaving behind at least 110 dead, 238 missing and an environmental disaster of epic proportions, the police were quick to arrest five people who had been responsible for inspecting the dam and who most recently proclaimed it “stable.” Certainly they had erred, and courts will decide whether they did so criminally. But rounding up the usual suspects does not begin to address responsibility for a disaster of this scale and a danger many mining communities face around the world.
Tailings are the wet waste from mining operations, often laced with toxic chemicals. At thousands of mines around the world, millions of tons of the muck accumulate behind dams. The most common type of dam — and the cheapest to build — is known as “upstream,” made by piling up thick sludge and raising the height of the dam as the pond grows. At the mine where the accident occurred in southeastern Brazil, owned by the giant mining company Vale, the dam was 28 stories high.
The danger posed by tailings dams is well known. Three years ago another upstream dam in the same Brazilian state, Minas Gerais, and co-owned by Vale and Australia’s BHP Group, collapsed, killing 19 people. The muck from that mine flowed 400 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. Other dams have collapsed in many countries around the world, and while the overall number of failures each year has been declining, the occurrence of major collapses has increased. According to the database World Mine Tailings Failures, there were 46 “serious” or “very serious” collapses — such as those in Brazil — between 1998 and 2017.
One reason is increased rainfall because of climate change, which can erode a dam wall years after the tailings pool is no longer in use. One study found that heavy rain was cited as a contributor to a quarter of global dam failures. Given that there are thousands of tailings dams around the world, and that mining companies generate ever more waste — they produced 8.5 billion metric tons in 2017, more than double the amount in 2000, according to an Australian researcher — the dams pose a danger that arresting a few workers won’t address.
The cost of failures is high, as Vale is learning. Shares in the company plunged 24 percent on the Monday after the Friday accident, and Vale is likely to face billions of dollars in penalties. That cost alone should propel Vale and the rest of the mining industry to take an immediate look at the way that they dispose of mining sludge and to inspect their dams. A joint report in November 2017 by the United Nations Environment Program and the Norwegian foundation GRID-Arendal found that in most failures, there had been ample advance warning signs. “The tragedy is that the warning signs were either ignored or not recognized by under-resourced management,” the report said.
After the 2015 accident in the state of Minas Gerais, state and federal investigators urged hiring more dam inspectors. But the federal government slashed budgets, in effect leaving Vale and other companies to do their own monitoring. It’s far from certain that the government will do better this time: Brazil’s new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, has already hobbled environmental regulators, and his infrastructure minister has warned against the “demonization” of Vale.
Vale, by contrast, has been quick to pledge changes. Fabio Schvartsman, its chief executive, said Tuesday that the company had decided to stop operations at mines where another 10 upstream dams were still in use until all were fully decommissioned, a process likely to take one to three years. The dam that burst last week had been out of use for two and a half years, he said, and was in the process of being decommissioned.
The global mining industry should take heed. It is clear that the industry needs to take a close look at upstream dams, to establish strict international standards for the way they are built and inspected and to study alternative ways to dispose of their wastes.
by Arielle Houghton
Is it just me or is growing up, in and older about selective memory? It seems all too easy to forget; names, dates, even entire school semesters seem to disappear into the abyss of grey matter in my head. This is especially true when I'm busy. Life seems like it’s accelerating and most moments seem like one stepping stone to the next. Transitioning from university to my career is likely the culprit of all this rushing. Juggling school, work, volunteering and attempting to sustain social networks keeps me constantly on the go. Of course, only the most pertinent information makes it to the top of mind.
That’s just one of the reasons I’m taking a 7 week road trip around B.C.; so I can take some time to reflect on my life up until this point in time. It never ceases to amaze me when entire memories fade from consciousness. When I was asked to write my salmon story I was left a bit dumbfounded. “My salmon story?” I thought, “What relationship do I have to salmon?” Despite the immediate disbelief, my history is, in fact, coloured with memories of these unique red and green fish.
As I reflected, those childhood memories rushed back. However no memories are quite as vivid as those that revolve around food.
Every year, we would go on a family trip to Cowichan River. It was one of the best trips of the year. We would fill up out inner tubes and float down the river, swim in the icy cold waters and search for sunken treasures under the big grey river rocks. We would wade down the creeks and streams searching for crayfish - kitchen tongs and buckets in hand - and every year we would eat my stepmother's famous cedar plank salmon. This was the Cowichan river cabin family tradition.
I remember my step mom would take the bright pink salmon cutlets and lay them on freshly cut cedar planks. She would splash the salmon with herbs and maple syrup producing a candied flavour that would blend with the cedar as the flames of the grill baked them together. This process offered a pungent sweet and smoky scent that would permeate the summer air every time the iron lid would open. And then, we would wait for what would seem like an eternity.
We would do anything to distract ourselves from the sensory euphoria that was wafting through the fresh air. We played tag, hide and seek, took a few swings at the bocce ball, we’d even humour my step brother’s brags of being able to do one hundred pushups. Of course, none of this compared to when the salmon would finally arrive on our dinner plates.
And yet, I wouldn’t pause to savour a bite. The entire meal would disappear in a matter of moments as my siblings and I gorged on the meat we anticipated for so long. I remember how my step mother would roll her eyes, “why do I even make the meal if you’re not going to enjoy it.” Oh but we would enjoy it. For those few moments, when the food filled our mouths and our faces would balloon like blowfish. In that moment we would be satisfied.
It’s remarkable, isn't it? How could this entire family tradition have disappeared from my recollection? Was it because the salmon arrived on my plate, as easily as it disappeared? Was it because I wouldn’t savour the moment when my longing for the salmon dinner was finally satiated? Or is it simply because I’ve just been too busy for memories like this to remain relevant?
Whatever the reason, those memories have shaped me. In fact, they are part of the reason why I choose to work and live in Victoria and why every time I leave Victoria, I always feel at home when I come back.They’ve influenced my decision to work at an environmental non-profit that is fighting to defend the places that bring salmon to that Cowichan River picnic table and others just like it.
While I’ve been finishing my degree in entrepreneurship, volunteering and working on the weekends, those memories have remained, silently guiding my decisions and leading me to a new story. It’s part of what has shaped the decision to travel all around B.C. to help others bring these memories to the surface, and ask more simple questions like “what is your salmon story?”
I’m taking this trip because, now, as the salmon and their homes are at risk of being forgotten and disappearing, I wonder what memories lay hidden but active in influencing others in making important decisions in other parts of B.C. I wonder how the places where British Columbians have grown up, the food they’ve eaten and their stories have shaped their lives.
To do this, I’m going to drive 7,000 km around B.C. to ask locals their stories and experience other parts of our home in this province. You can follow my story as it forms at peopleofplace.ca.
by Celine Trojand and Mary Leighton
If you go online and look up #wildsalmon, your screen floods with pictures of happy people in Alaska pulling up fish. Open up a paper in B.C. and you’ll likely see a story focused on the controversial fish farms or declining stocks. What’s often missing is what we saw on a recent trip across B.C.’s northwest — thousands of people coming together every year for the salmon harvest and going to great lengths to conserve our wild salmon species. This summer, Mary and Celine set out to visit with communities from Telegraph Creek, to Terrace, to Prince George. We saw for ourselves what salmon mean to British Columbians.
About 30 kilometers west of Terrace, two fly fishing enthusiasts, Nathan and Troy, pull on their waders and grab buckets – not to cast their flies, but to collect fry and smolt trapped in a dried-up swamp next to the Exstew river. They scoop up 170 baby salmon from the overheated slough, carry them to the banks of the river in a bucket, and slowly add the cool river water until they can return the salmon to the river without shocking their little systems.
These members of the Steelhead Society set traps every single day to save hundreds of salmon from certain death. They drive the 60 kilometre round trip after their day jobs to do this, knowing that even with their heroic efforts, only 10 of every 100 samon they save may return. Troy gestures to his daughter and asks, “If at the end of the day all the salmon are gone, what’s she gonna say? ‘What did you do?’ I want her to be able to go out salmon fishing. I want my grandkids to be able to go out salmon fishing.”
Meanwhile, in the dry canyon of Telegraph Creek, a king salmon gets caught in the Ball family’s net. The sisters start yelling for a tote. We watch as they fill it with water, nudge the king inside, and sprint across the 100 meters of beach to shuttle the fish to cool waters and freedom.
The Tahltan have voluntarily given up catching kings this year on account of low numbers. While it’s affecting family harvests and consequently winter stores, everyone we talked to said that it was worth it. That they would do whatever it takes to conserve the species for years to come.
As a case in point, after a rock slide in the Tahltan River that blocked kings from heading up to spawn, the Tahltan collaborated with Department of Fisheries and Oceans to capture and transport the salmon above the slide via helicopter!
We saw the same commitment in Destinee, a young Nisga’a fisheries technician who takes pride in her work counting salmon on the Nass River. “When we’re out there on the river working with salmon,” she says, “I always make sure I’m doing my best job, because I know it comes back tenfold.”
Elsewhere on the Nass River, and on the and Skeena River, Gitxsan communities have moved to seine netting and fish wheels to reduce bycatch and better select which species they catch species. It’s a huge change from how they’ve been fishing for thousands of years.
2019 has been named the International Year of the Salmon, and here at Salmon Beyond Borders we’re getting excited to see salmon people unite to conserve and celebrate this persistent, wild, and beautiful creature, and to show the world what salmon mean to our lives and communities.
As Jacinda Mack says in the film Uprivers, “salmon is more than protein on a plate.” On our trip through British Columbia, we experienced that. Salmon is the reason people come together. Salmon is the connection between the past and the future. Salmon is life.
B.C. is a huge place and we only visited three river systems — the Stikine, the Skeena, and the Nass. Salmon run up the Thompson, the Fraser, the Kitimat, and the Campbell Rivers, and so many more. We’d love to hear about your own local efforts to conserve your salmon.
Share a story and tag us @salmonbeyondborders
by Sierra Harvey
If you are a person of the coast, you have a salmon story. I didn’t recognize mine until my third year at university.
In 1980, my step dad, as a young and over-energetic 19-year old was thrilled to be offered a position with a logging company straight out of high school. A great deal of money was locked up in old growth coastal timber of Clayoquot Sound, and companies offered new employees great financial incentives to perform this type of high-risk work. Little did he realize the effects of logging would leave on the watershed, reducing the stabilization capacity of stream banks, removing key shading to regulate water temperatures and saturation abilities, resulting in increased runoff and flooding. The effects are extremely detrimental to salmon. Salmon, like trees, are another key resource in these small communities. The fish that we love, are central to our diets, our lifestyle, and are affected by everything we do on land. My family is dependant on salmon to fill the freezers. Our 17ft fibreglass was a source of so much joy as a child.
These days, like most small logging towns in coastal British Columbia, my hometown of Ucluelet, BC has shifted from resource extraction to tourism.
Now in Victoria, I study geography and restoration. Geography is an exploration of the possibilities and capacities of nature, and the story of human interactions with the land and sea. A central component of geography and restoration is conservation. My interest was seeded in my first year by Phillip Dearden, who sheds light on the big, gnarly, and obvious (when you look for them) problems in society and resource management in his Geography 101 course. Already filled with a desire to be outdoors and exploring, geography grounded my thought processes and guided my passion for coastal conservation in B.C.
Last summer I had my own experience working in Clayoquot Sound. Now thirty years after the demise of logging in the biosphere, I worked in the same watershed that is home to spawning Chinook, Coho and Chum salmon, and the same one my step-dad logged many moons ago.
My time with Central Westcoast Forest Society was both humbling and motivating. I had the opportunity to work with an incredibly hard working organization on salmon habitat restoration. I spent my time directly in the rivers and estuaries, working to bring these ecosystems back to the healthy state they were in prior to logging.
Considering the connections between salmon and the make-up of terrestrial ecosystems is key to ensuring that these systems remain healthy and functioning for the long term. Humans effect on salmon populations is unlike any other predator. My passion, combined with my growing knowledge of salmon ecosystems, led me to Salmon Beyond Borders’ work, where I can focus my efforts on policy related to transboundary rivers. The rivers of Northern BC and Alaska are dear to my heart and I am passionate about making as many waves as I can in this time.
A salmon story is always full circle. My family’s history on the coast is lengthy and has fostered who I am today. I grew up on the fresh fish that we caught and smoked; camped in archipelagos; and spent weekends exploring the watershed. It seems anomalous to even consider a world where this kind of life is not possible. Like the life cycle of a salmon, beginning in a single river and returning to that same river, my salmon story will always be a part of me and whether I realize it or not, and the decisions I have made in life are made with these stories in mind.
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.
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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