CBC News · Posted: Aug 13, 2020 5:34 PM PT | Last Updated: August 13
Original Publication can be found here.
The Mount Polley mine tailings spill that sent more than 24 million cubic metres of mine waste into nearby waterways in 2014 continues to impact lakes, rivers and aquatic ecosystems, according to a new study.
Researchers have been monitoring Quesnel Lake since the spill, which is considered one of the largest environmental mining disasters in Canadian history.
Though samples taken one year after the spill showed the lake waters had potentially returned to their pre-spill state, new information from a three-year study reveals that is not the case; elevated levels of copper and fine sediment have been found in the lake in both the spring and fall.
Turbidity in parts of the lake increases each spring and fall as it mixes up, bringing sediment up from the lake bottom turning the clear-blue lake green in a natural process called turnover, according to lead researcher Ellen Petticrew. She said this raises concerns about contaminants being reintroduced into the water column.
The research team said chronic exposure to elevated copper concentrations can reduce the growth, reproduction and survival of fish populations. Small changes to the colour and clarity of a lake can alter algal communities.
"Copper for aquatic organisms can be, not just toxic, but also has been found to modify some of the ability for organisms to move," said Petticrew.
Trees damaged by the Mount Polley tailings spill. Photo taken Aug. 27, 2014. (Kieran Oudshoorn/CBC)Quesnel Lake flows into the Fraser River and ultimately into the Pacific Ocean. The state of the water in the lake could impact trout fisheries and Fraser River Pacific salmon stocks.
"Inevitably, these spills end up flowing downstream into lakes or the ocean where they can disappear from view, yet that doesn't mean the impact is over," said Hamilton.
Phil Owens, another researcher on the project and a professor of environmental science at UNBC, said this project will help inform what happens with future environmental incidents.
"I think we need to understand what the environmental implications are when a catastrophic incident like this occurs, so that when other ones occur in the future … we have a much better understanding of what the implications are likely to be to aquatic systems."
“Mother Earth will provide for your needs but not your greed.”
Tuesday, August 11, 2020 12:37pm
By Bev Sellars
Six years ago, the Imperial Metals Mount Polley mine waste dump failed. Billions of litres of contaminants flooded into Quesnel Lake and the Fraser River watershed, where my people, members of the Xat’sull First Nation, have drunk water and caught salmon since time immemorial.
The disaster was an opportunity for British Columbia and Canada to change their Gold Rush-era mining laws. But they didn’t. Instead, they continue to allow industry to use the Fraser River watershed as a garbage dump.
Those who harvest from the Fraser waters and lands have long observed changes in fish quality, liver and organ damage in wildlife, dwindling moose populations and disappearing birds. Changes in Quesnel Lake only started with the Mount Polley disaster.
It’s important to understand how we got to this point and how it’s affected our communities.
First of all, before the newcomers arrived, Indigenous peoples lived by the natural laws of the land. The Indigenous economy walked and grew on the land and swam in the waters. Our ancestors were healthy because they lived in harmony with nature.
Years ago, an Elder told me everything was inside a circle, everything is connected, and humans are equal to everything living, even the rocks.
This differs from the colonized view: That humans are dominant over and superior to everything else. That way of thinking has gotten us into the mess we are in.
As Joe Martin from Tla-o-qui-aht says “Mother Earth will provide for your needs but not your greed.”
Resource extraction companies use smoke and mirrors to justify their destruction of the environment. They say they provide jobs, but they don’t mention they are short-term jobs. They remind people that materials used in phones or other gadgets are mined, but convenience is our downfall. They claim to provide stimulus to the economy but they fail to mention that once a mine is built it will be there forever, threatening or destroying the real economy: the water and land.
Many people are unaware of the damages because they live in cities or towns far from any resource-extraction activity. As long as what they need is on the shelves, they don’t worry about what it takes to get it there. Out of sight, out of mind — just as Indian reserves and Indigenous peoples were at one time.
Many know that Indigenous ways dictate how to live our lives to ensure seven generations ahead have a healthy environment to sustain them. At the rate we’re going now, I worry even three generations ahead will have a very difficult time. Resource extraction of all kinds is the starting point for everything pollution and climate change brings.
We protect ourselves by having filtered water, air-conditioned homes, cars, and offices. In this way, we don’t feel the full effect of what we’re doing. We’re killing many species of birds, animals, plants and fish. They don’t have the natural air conditioner they need anymore. They don’t have filtered water. There are many kinds of communities, not just human, and we need to keep them front and centre in order for us to survive. What they need, we need.
The most important role I have today is being a Grandmother. And so I ask the ancestors to help all of us process what we learn and help educate others about the changes needed. Before and during the pandemic, our children and grandchildren have been in the streets fighting for their future. We need to help them. We have to fight for all of our grandchildren — even the grandchildren of those polluting the Earth, because those grandchildren also have a right to a healthy, sustainable future.
At www.reformbcmining.ca, please demand justice for those impacted by the Mount Polley disaster and say no to new mine waste dams upstream of communities and salmon habitat. This is a small step we can right now take for future generations.
• Bev Sellars is a Grandmother and the former chief of the Xat’sull First Nation, which is on the front lines of the Mount Polley mine waste dump disaster that took place Aug. 4, 2014.
The in-season Fraser River sockeye salmon run is forecast at 283,000, according to Pacific Salmon Commission
Rafferty Baker · CBC News · Posted: Aug 11, 2020 8:02 PM PT | Last Updated: August 11
This year is turning out to be a devastating one for Fraser River sockeye salmon, with the lowest forecast return since tracking began in 1983, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission. (Chris Corday/CBC)
This year is shaping up to be the worst for sockeye salmon in the Fraser River since tracking began in 1893, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission.
The expected run has been downgraded to less than a third of pre-season forecasts, and unusually high water levels on the river have made for a challenging migration for early-season sockeye.
In addition, the Big Bar landslide north of Lillooet, which wasn't discovered until June 2019, poses a further challenge for the fish, making a section of the migration route nearly impassible.
The Fraser River salmon runs, the Early Stuart and Early Summer, will struggle to make the migration, according to the Pacific Salmon Commission (PSC).
"The majority of those runs will not reach their spawning grounds," said Catherine Michielsens, the commission's chief of fisheries management science.
The pre-season Fraser River sockeye salmon forecast was 941,000 fish, but has been downgraded to just 283,000, according to a PSC update this week.
Michielsens said the 2016 sockeye run — which is the brood year for the 2020 run — was the lowest on record at the time, with 894,000 returning salmon.
The only glimmer of hope for the river's sockeye, according to Michielsens, is every four years there's a large Late Shuswap run, which is significant enough to make for possible fishing opportunities.
Struggles at Big BarThe landslide at Big Bar likely happened in late 2018 but wasn't noticed until last summer after salmon had already started arriving in the area.nearly $53 million.
A landslide at Big Bar, north of Lillooet, B.C., has hindered the salmon migration in the Fraser River since the rocks gave way some time in late 2018. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada/Twitter)Fish are being helped around the slide with various methods, including a Whooshh system, a pneumatic fish pump, also known as a "salmon cannon."
The system is responsible for transporting about 5,000 of the fish above the Big Bar slide.
Michielsens said the discharge level at the slide has lowered to about the same point as last year, and more fish should be able to make their way past now.
"From my point of view, Big Bar is a challenge and it's disappointing, but the low run size and the low returns are an even bigger story," she said, adding that ocean and river water temperatures are tied to the low returns.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rafferty Baker is a video journalist with CBC News, based in Vancouver. You can find his stories on CBC Radio, television, and online at cbc.ca/bc.
Concerns persist over mines’ wet tailings ponds
By Nelson Bennett | August 10, 2020
Three tailings dam designs. MiningWatch Canada and Earthworks argue that all upstream tailing dams should be banned. The Mount Polley dam was a modified centreline design | SubmittedWhen a tailings pond dam at the Mount Polley copper-gold mine collapsed in 2014, it was one of the worst mining disasters in recent memory in Canada.
But it was only one of four such dam failures around the world that year, including one in Brazil that killed two workers. In 2019, there were six tailings pond failures, including one in Brazil that killed more than 250 people.
On average, there have been two or four tailings pond ruptures every year around the world over the last decade, with a relatively high number of them occurring in places like Myanmar, Brazil and China.
And with even more mines to be built in the coming decades to meet the demand for minerals and metals from a world switching to renewable energy and electric cars, that raises the spectre of increased tailings pond failures around the world, according to Safety First a new report by Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada.
“Tailings facilities, which contain the processed waste materials generated from mining metals and minerals, are failing with increased frequency and severity,” the report warns.
The report calls for alternatives to wet tailings ponds or, where that is not feasible, better dam designs.
“The safest tailings facility is the one that is not built,” it states.
Whenever possible, wet tailings pond dams should be avoided by using filtered tailings storage, otherwise known as dry-stack tailings, the report recommends.
But there can be environmental trade-offs with filtered tailings, which are mine tailings that have been “dewatered” to create a semi-solid. They are not really dry, but more like a moist material like partially dried cement.
The whole point of storing mine waste (finely ground rock left over after valuable metals have been extracted) under water in a tailings ponds is to avoid acid rock drainage, which can occur when metals in waste rock are exposed to air and then water. Acid and toxic compounds can then drain into local waterways when it rains.
So, filtered tailings may avoid the loss of life and property that can result from a wet tailings pond rupture, but in regions with high precipitation, it can pose additional challenges with managing acid rock drainage.
Even so, when an expert panel was struck to investigate the Mount Polley tailings pond failure, it recommended the use of filtered tailings for future mines.
“They said there’s no overriding technical impediments to more widespread use of filtered technology,” said Jan Morrill, Earthworks’ international mining campaigner. “So, yes, it does require additional engineering considerations, but the expert panel that looked directly at Mount Polley said filtered tailings should be used more widely in order to promote safety.”
She added that it would be difficult to implement filtered tailings at an existing dam like Mount Polley. But for all future mines, the report recommends filtered tailings.
When filtered tailings are not an option, at the very least better dam construction needs to be required by regulators, Safety First states.
There are three types of designs: upstream, downstream and centreline. This refers to the orientation of the dam embankments not the physical location of the tailings pond in relation to the mine, community or lake. The upstream design is considered the least secure.
“The use of upstream dams must be banned in favour of centreline and downstream dams, which are much less vulnerable to all mechanisms of dam failure,” Safety First recommends.
The Mount Polley Tailings pond was a modified centreline design.
When the Mount Polley mine was first being designed, Imperial Metals (TSX:III) CEO Brian Kynoch said drystack tailings were considered. But he said a water dam had to be built anyway, because large amounts of water are needed for the milling process. So the company decided it might as well use it for tailings storage.
Kynoch said the best solution would have been to pump the tailings into Quesnel Lake, which is North America’s third deepest lake.
Despite the relatively “clean” geochemistry of the ore, the prospect of putting mine waste in a lake would have been met with a public outcry.
“Most experts, I’d say, would tell you that that’s probably the best thing to do. But it’s a very hard-to-permit solution,” Kynoch said.
However, that’s what happened anyway: tailings at the bottom of a lake and a public outcry.
According to the expert technical panel that investigated the Mount Polley incident, the dam’s design wasn’t so much the problem as the foundation it was built on. It might have still collapsed, regardless of how the embankments were built.
The tailings pond dam sits on a layer of glacial till, which is consolidated everywhere except under the portion where the dam collapsed. In that area, the glacial till was less consolidated and was therefore unstable.
Even though the volume of water built up behind the dam was not deemed to have caused the collapse, it did exacerbate the damage.
Imperial Metals had expressed concerns to B.C.’s Ministry of Environment over the volume of water that had built up behind the dam. It had been asking for a water discharge permit to reduce pressure on the dam, and even warned the ministry in January 2014 that, without being able to discharge water, “there exists a three-year timeframe during which storage will become geo-technically problematic.”
The company warned that pressure was building up behind the dam, risking overtopping.
“Six years to get a discharge permit,” Kynoch said. “Six years of study, and then they gave us a permit that wasn’t big enough.”
That is, the permit did not allow enough water to be discharged to attain a negative water balance in the dam.
An expert panel investigating the dam’s failure concluded that the collapse was the result of a weak, soft layer of glacial till that had not been detected by engineers when the dam was first designed and built in the mid-1990s.
That may explain why Imperial Metals was never charged for the dam’s failure, and why the engineering firm responsible for the dam’s design and maintenance eventually settled out of court after Imperial Metals sued it for $108 million. Three engineers who had been responsible for the dam’s maintenance are facing disciplinary hearings.
Just last week, a report commissioned by the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council noted that the regulatory environment around tailings ponds in B.C. have improved since the Mount Polley incident, but warns that more needs to be done to avoid future dam failures.
It even suggests some mines should be shut down.
The report notes there are a dozen new mine proposals in B.C. and raises particular concerns over the massive KSM mine proposal, which the report says would place a massive tailings pond dam above the Bell Irving-Nass watershed.
“While transparency of decisions by mine operators has been improved by recent regulatory reforms and stakeholders now have more access to information than in the past, more needs to be done to enable direct community involvement regarding design, management and monitoring to ensure tailings dam safety,” the report states.
“But in spite of B.C.’s mine law reforms after Mount Polley, the elephant in the room still remains: should the B.C. government allow the development of new tailings dams upstream of communities and should those that currently exist be closed down?”
Efforts to clean up a defunct Canadian mine across the border from Southeast Alaska have been stalled by creditors who are owed millions by the mining company.
The Tulsequah Chief mine is upriver from Taku Inlet about 40 miles from Juneau. It hasn’t produced gold or other commodities since the 1950s and has been leeching acidic runoff for years. Alaska officials and tribal leaders on both sides of the border have been urging a cleanup of the site.
B.C. mining officials had announced they’d step in after the latest mine owner Chieftain Metals missed key deadlines to fix environmental problems. But according to filings in an Ontario court, the cleanup is now held up by a Toronto investment firm owed at least $20 million for investing in a failed effort at restarting the mine about a decade ago.
Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders in Juneau has been tracking the legal obstacles to remediating the site.
“It’s actually a big creditor, West Face Capital, who made a stupid investment in a very risky mine — they lost their investment,” Zimmer said. “Now, they’re abusing the bankruptcy laws to try to keep the mine in bankruptcy and somehow sell it and make some of their money back.”
A court motion by the province of B.C. argues Chieftain Metals has been given many chances and shouldn’t be given unlimited time to become solvent and resell the mine. Especially as much of the cleanup will likely be done at Canadian taxpayers’ expense.
The province’s lawyers has asked the court to set a hard deadline of not more than two years for the the creditors to court new investors or quit its claim to the mine. The investment group has argued against setting a timeline.
“The province of British Columbia does not object to the creditor having two years within which to move for another appointment, but does object to the granting of an unlimited period,” the B.C. province’s attorneys wrote the court. “It objects because due to the mine operators’ failure to address acidic drainage into the watershed, the province has begun to take steps toward the implementation of a remediation and closure plan for the mine.”
A B.C. mining ministry spokesperson declined to comment on when the closure plan might commence. But noted that the Ontario court proceedings create “legal sensitivities and challenges that would otherwise not exist.”
The bankruptcy hearing that could break the impasse is scheduled for August 11 at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto.
Posted by Jacob Resneck | Aug 6, 2020
At the Red Chris Mine, a dam contains a tailings pond. that collects mine waste. Northwest B.C., 2017. (Courtesy of Garth Lenz)
An effort to create global industry standards for mine waste has emerged almost six years to the day after a massive tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine failed in British Columbia. But there are concerns that the new standards don’t go far enough to protect communities downstream.
The Global Tailings Review effort launched more than a year ago. Its catalyst was the deadly dam collapse last year at a Brazilian mine near Brumadinho that killed hundreds of people.
Closer to home, British Columbia’s Mount Polley Mine Disaster in 2014 wasn’t deadly. But its aftermath revealed what critics saw as weaknesses in Canada’s regulations that allowed a mine company to pollute a river and escape fines or prosecution.
A broad panel of industry, international civic organizations and United Nations experts studied both disasters. Speaking a year ago, Elisa Tonda of the U.N.’s environment program said expectations for the new standards would be high.
“The review will have to create a very strong and powerful industry standard that will raise the bar from current practices and current approaches,” she said in a statement.
On August 5, the standards were released. The 21-page document says its goal is “zero harm to people and the environment with zero tolerance” for fatalities. The U.N. says it will work on translating these ideals into national standards. But in the meantime, Charlie Cobb, Alaska’s dam safety engineer says he doesn’t see many practical takeaways.
“I don’t mind referencing federal documents as a state regulator, but I have a hard time with referencing international guidance,” Cobb told CoastAlaska.
Not that he doesn’t see a need. He serves as the chairman of a committee developing uniform guidelines for tailings dams in the U.S. to supplement existing standards in the National Dam Safety Program.
“And after Mount Polley failed, you know, I raised my hand in the board meeting and said, ‘You know, we probably ought to step up to the plate and start looking at tailings dams a little more closely.'”
That process is still underway. But the just-released global standards include a number of lofty principles, like the respect for human rights for affected communities downstream.
None of this high-sounding language is binding by any court of law or government regulator. And that’s a problem says David Chambers, a mining consultant with the Center for Science in Public Participation in Bozeman, Montana.
“There isn’t any teeth,” he said in an interview. “It’s all voluntary compliance. And I think more importantly, there’s sort of a lack of performance standards.”
And by that, he says, “we’d hoped that there would be things like recommended factors of safety which aren’t in there.”
So how are these global standards supposed to work? An industry group called the International Council on Mining and Metals was one of the key players in crafting the language. It represents about a third of the world’s mining industry.
Asked how ICMM would police its membership, the trade group’s CEO Tom Butler conceded that they’re a voluntary organization, not a regulator.
“But ultimately if a member is consistently not complying or bringing ICMM into disrepute, there are mechanisms that exist within the ICMM articles of association for expulsion,” he said Wednesday.
Alaska’s largest mining industry group says it’s taking its cues from national trade associations.
“All of Alaska’s large operating mines have memberships in one or both of these organizations, and have provided comment throughout the process,” wrote Alaska Miners Association‘s Deantha Skibinski in a statement to CoastAlaska.
“But more importantly,” she said, “Alaska’s large operating mines have had their Tailings Storage Facilities (TSFs) approved and monitored throughout the entire process – from site selection, design and construction, management and monitoring, and post closure. The various approval processes include significant environmental review and public participation opportunities.”
The catalyst for raising the standards for mine tailing storage globally comes from tribes and green groups but also big international investors. Managers of pension funds have invested heavily in global mining operations, and catastrophic dam failures like Brazil’s have been a financial liability that have played havoc with stock values.
“Because when these tailings dam fails these guys’ stock value goes through the floor — it gets hammered. And the investors are the ones losing that money,” said Cobb, Alaska’s dam safety engineer. “And so the investors finally said, ‘Well, what what are we investing in here? That there’s all this risk, but we don’t know about.’ And so they forced their member organizations to disclose their tailings dam inventories.”
A mined-out pit used to store wastewater and milling leftovers at British Columbia’s Mount Polley Mine is expected to fill up in April. The B.C. government just issued a permit allowing treated pit water to be discharged into a nearby lake. (Photo by Monica Lamb-Yorsk/Williams Lake Tribune)That’s created a searchable online database. It includes entries like the Red Chris Mine, an open pit gold and copper mine in British Columbia that’s upstream from the Stikine River watershed. The mine was developed by Imperial Metals, the same firm responsible for Mount Polley.
It’s the presence of B.C.’s booming mining sector on Alaska’s doorstep that has a coalition of tribes, conservationists and fishermen nervous.
“We’re gonna have to be watching the Red Chris lake of poison, you know, they call it a tailings storage facility. But that’s gonna be there forever,” said Frederick Olsen Jr. the Sitka-based executive director of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission. It’s a regional effort by tribes to watchdog mining on both sides of the border.
“Our people have been here for thousands of years and we want to be here for thousands of years into the future. And so we have to look out for this stuff,” Olsen said.
Olsen and other Alaskans who are “looking out” across the border are encouraged by the standards set in the Global Tailings Review, but plan to remain vigilant. The best way to deal with tailings dam failures, most agree, is to prevent them.
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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