“We need to ensure British Columbia follows through on its promises.”
Monday, September 7, 2020 12:55pm
OPINION By Cynthia Wallesz
Good news for the Taku River and for those, like myself, who sell and eat Southeast Alaska seafood.
Last month, the British Columbia government released a permanent closure and cleanup plan for its long-abandoned and polluting Tulsequah Chief mine. When releasing the plan, B.C. committed almost $1.6 million to start the process.
In tracking this issue for the last five years, I’ve learned that making strides in transboundary waters takes having prominent elected officials on your side. I especially want to thank Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan for speaking up for the Taku River in their travels, on the Senate floor and elsewhere. Alaska-side attention to the Taku has done much to finally spur this B.C. action.
The Tulsequah Chief mine sits right on the banks of the Tulsequah River, the largest tributary to the Taku River, only a few miles upstream of the Alaska-B.C. border. The mine has been leaching toxic acid drainage into the Tulsequah River since the 1950s. The ongoing pollution has been an example of problems with B.C.’s regulation and management of mining activities and was the impetus for growing concerns about B.C. mining in the transboundary region all along Southeast Alaska’s border.
[8 senators send letter urging more transboundary water quality oversight]
As a commercial salmon fisherman out of Petersburg who sells directly to consumers, I talk with hundreds of people each year about the positive attributes of Southeast Alaska and our seafood. Attributes like clean, cool water and natural river systems that support the wild, healthy and sustainable salmon runs that provide nutritious food people throughout the world enjoy year after year. My marketing efforts depend on the ability to continue harvesting wild stocks of salmon and telling the story of intact, productive habitats that yield the healthiest of proteins.
Pollution from the Tulsequah Chief has rendered about 2 miles of productive spawning and rearing habitat unusable by fish. Literally tons of toxic heavy metals like copper, lead, cadmium and arsenic have been discharged into the Tulsequah River; we do not know where these metals are ending up. This pollution is in clear violation of B.C. and Canadian federal water quality standards and mine permits. Copper is especially worrisome because fish exposed to even very low levels of copper can potentially suffer from impaired brain function, reduced reproduction, impaired predator avoidance, reduced ability to find food, compromised “homing” ability, decreased growth and depressed immune response.
The Taku River is usually Southeast Alaska’s largest overall salmon producer with the largest run of coho and king salmon, and is a vital regional economic, cultural and recreational resource. After more than 60 years of toxic acid mine drainage from the abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine, we now have an opportunity to stop the pollution and end this mine’s threat to Taku fish.
Cleaning up and closing Tulsequah Chief will largely end the threat of additional mining and acid mine drainage in the lower Taku. This is currently the best, relatively easiest and timeliest opportunity to protect a valuable Southeast Alaska transboundary salmon watershed from the effects of B.C. mining.
But there is still work to be done. The remediation will be logistically challenging and far more funding will be needed than has thus far been allocated. We need to ensure B.C. follows through on its promises. The cleanup and closure efforts need to be conducted properly and swiftly with enough money to finish the job.
To Murkowski and Sullivan, as well as Gov. Mike Dunleavy and other elected officials, Tribes and the hundreds of commercial, sport, and subsistence fishermen and businesses who have for many years called for an end to Tulsequah Chief’s pollution, thank you for standing up for the Taku and for the Alaskans who depend on it. Please continue to stay engaged to ensure B.C. follows through on its commitment to close and clean up the Tulsequah Chief mine as expeditiously as possible.
• Cynthia Wallesz is an Alaska seafood advocate who fishes commercially for salmon in Southeast Alaska, is a direct marketer and consults for small businesses and nonprofits. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.
By Scott Schuyler and Rob Edward
Special to The Times
Six years ago this month, British Columbia suffered an environmental catastrophe when a dam at the Mount Polley Mine collapsed, spilling more than a billion gallons of toxic waste into Quesnel Lake and the Fraser Watershed. The devastation impacted community drinking water, salmon spawning grounds and faith in B.C.’s mining oversight. With numerous other mines in watersheds upstream of Washington rivers, we are at risk of similar tragedies unless the provincial government in Victoria ends the regulatory blank check it grants the mining industry.
The company responsible for the Mount Polley disaster, Imperial Metals, owns mineral rights in a part of the Skagit River Headwaters called the “donut hole,” unprotected land surrounded by Manning Provincial Park and other protected areas just north of the U.S.-Canada border and North Cascades National Park. Calls for termination of Imperial’s mining ambitions here have come from native leaders, elected officials, conservationists and prominent Canadian voices. Yet as the price of gold soars, the risk of another mining disaster increases.
The Skagit River, which is named after the Upper Skagit people, has been at the very center of the lives and culture of the Upper Skagit Tribe since time immemorial. It’s also the most productive salmon river flowing into Puget Sound. A mining accident in the Skagit Headwaters would harm tribal and nontribal communities, salmon and the struggling southern resident killer whales. We hope others will see the value in moving quickly to protect this sacred river and our way of life.
But the Skagit is not the only international river at risk. Copper Mountain Mine, near Princeton, B.C., has a massive tailings dam that tenuously holds toxic sludge from flowing down the Similkameen River into Washington and the Okanogan and Columbia rivers, important producers of sockeye and Chinook. The Similkameen’s water is sacred to the Lower Similkameen Indian Band, who have been unable to eat fish from the river for generations due to the legacy of mining. The mismanagement of our watersheds has led to the desecration of social, cultural, environmental and economic values that were given by the Creator from our beginning. Our Syilx Water Declaration must shape the starting point for watershed planning in the future, including mitigating threats from mining.
These are just two examples. There are dozens of existing and proposed mines just north of the border, many threatening Idaho, Montana and especially southeast Alaska, where Imperial’s Red Chris Mine puts the cherished salmon runs of the Stikine River at risk. Toxic waste from B.C. mining lines the bottom of Lake Roosevelt in northeast Washington. Montana’s Elk River is heavily polluted by upstream coal mining. Yet provincial mining regulations are much more lax than those of Washington. And as B.C.’s auditor general reported, even those lax standards are not being met.
Americans usually think of Canada as a good neighbor, but there is nothing neighborly about this. British Columbia is putting communities at risk, both its own and those downstream in the U.S. The health of our rivers, salmon and communities is jeopardized by subsidies to transnational mining corporations. This must end, and Washington’s leaders must speak up.
It is time for Victoria to modernize provincial mining regulations, bringing them to at least level with Washington’s. Most important is a requirement for full financial assurances, so that mining interests have posted enough funds to remediate any damage they cause.
It has been six years since the Mount Polley disaster, and nothing has changed. Our communities cannot wait any longer to be relieved of danger from toxic mining spills. We call on Washington’s leaders, especially Gov. Jay Inslee, to demand these actions of Premier John Horgan and his government.
Scott Schuyler: of Sedro-Woolley is a lifelong fisherman, tribal member and the natural resources director of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe.
Rob Edward: of Keremeos, B.C. is a traditional knowledge keeper specialist and former chief of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band.
Jacob Resneck, CoastAlaska - Juneau
August 27, 2020
The KSM project’s operational phase mine site layout includes pits to access ore, rock storage, a dam and a water treatment plant provided in 2014. (KSM environmental assessment certificate application)The developer of what it promises to be one of the largest open pit projects on the continent wants more time from Canadian regulators while it seeks partners to develop its B.C. metals mine about 30 miles from the border.
The Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mine received regulatory approval in 2014 on the condition that it break ground within five years. It’s already received a five-year extension but now the company says it may need until 2026 to find a development partner.
The gold, silver, copper and molybdenum mine has been compared to Bristol Bay’s Pebble Mine in its scale, wealth and potential environmental risk to Alaska’s communities and fisheries downstream.
Its mine waste would be held in a massive tailings pond — created by a dam more than 780 feet high — taller than the Hoover Dam about 80 miles from Wrangell.
But Frederick Olsen Jr. of the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission says another extension would mean the mine’s environmental assessment would be 12 years old by the time the developer actually got started.
“Their (environmental assessment) was already outdated because, as everybody on earth knows, they were approved before Mount Polley happened,” Olsen said. “You know, when people got a wake up call on that design flaw, a catastrophic, devastating flaw in that type of design.”
He’s referring to the Mount Polley Mine disaster in 2014. That mine’s tailings dam failed, allowing millions of tons of mine waste to spill into B.C. rivers and streams.
Officials in Alaska have been keeping tabs on B.C.’s booming mining sector in transboundary watersheds.
“I meet at least monthly with B.C. officials, but sometimes more frequently depending on specific effort we are collaborating on at the moment,” Kyle Moselle, of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, said in a brief statement.
Moselle says his office was notified by B.C. officials and the Toronto-based developer of the proposed extension.
Representatives of Seabridge Gold did not return messages seeking comment.
Aug. 25, 2020 at 6:00 am Updated Aug. 25, 2020 at 5:04 pm
By Hal Bernton / Seattle Times staff reporter
Alaska salmon have gotten smaller in recent decades, a downsizing that appears to be largely driven by climate change and increased competition for food as hatcheries release some 5 billion young fish into the North Pacific each year, according to a study published this month by U.S. and Canadian researchers in the science journal Nature Communications.
Alaska provides the vast majority of the United States’ wild salmon, and their smaller size is reducing the number of eggs that these fish produce and their value to commercial and other fishermen.
That decline encompasses salmon runs all over the state but varies by species and region. Chinook returning across a broad expanse of western and northern Alaska were some 10% smaller than the average size before 1990. Meanwhile in southeast Alaska, sockeye salmon declined — on average — by only about 2%.
Many of these salmon appear to be returning from the ocean earlier to freshwater spawning grounds, and that’s why they are smaller as they reach coastal-area harvest zones.
“There are two ways they could be getting smaller — they could be growing less and be the same age but smaller, or they could be younger — and we saw a strong and consistent pattern that the salmon are returning to the rivers younger than they did historically,” said Eric Palkovacs, study co-author and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
The study used Alaska Department of Fish and Game sampling information gathered between 1957 and 2018 from 1,014 locations across the state. The study looked at 12.5 million size and age measurements from chinook, coho, chum and sockeye, four of the five species of salmon that return to spawn in freshwater.
Chinook are the largest salmon. The study estimates that the body-size declines observed in chinook have decreased egg production by 16%, knocked 21% off their value and reduced by 26% the meals that these fish can provide to rural Alaskans.
“Reductions for other species were less dramatic but still substantial,” the study stated.
Others researchers also have looked at the decline in chinook size. A study by University of Washington and federal fishery researchers published last year in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at chinook that returned to spawn in West Coast river systems but migrated to feed in ocean waters much farther north.
That study pointed to orcas, which prey on the chinook, as a big cause for the decline in the size of these fish.
The southern resident orcas, which depend on chinook for their survival, are struggling and are listed as an endangered species. Other causes for the decline of the southern residents, which frequent Puget Sound, include noise masking their ability to hunt as well as pollution.
But off British Columbia and Alaska, orcas are doing well. Fish-eating resident populations have nearly tripled their numbers over a 50-year period, according to Jan Ohlberger, a UW research scientist and a co-author of the study.
“Something has to be affecting the survival rates of the oldest fish,” said co-author Daniel Schindler, a UW professor of aquatic and fishery science, in a statement released last year. “It’s clear there are lots of unanswered questions, but if you take a weight-of-evidence approach, most arrows are pointing to marine mammals — and killer whales, in particular.”
Palkovacs notes that the study published in Nature Communications has a different focus — looking at fish caught off Alaska and not those harvested in Northwest waters — and used a different methodology. He said that it’s possible orcas could have an impact in some select populations of salmon returning to spawn in Alaska’s freshwater. But he said there is not good enough data on the diet of Alaska orcas to determine if they are having any kind of broad-scale affect on size of Alaska salmon.
Also, off Alaska, there are lots of reports of orcas feeding on fish other than chinook. Alaska fishermen, for example, report orcas frequently strip black cod from the baited longlines set by Alaska fishermen.
“The limited diet data available for Alaska resident killer whales suggests that they show lower selectivity on Chinook salmon than do killer whales from Washington and British Columbia,” stated the study Palkovacs co-authored.
Much of this study discusses the dual impacts of climate change and competition as salmon migrate from freshwater, where they hatch from young eggs into ocean feeding grounds. This cycle is completed when some fish survive to return to freshwater to spawn.
The researchers say the data they analyzed indicates that many salmon opted to forgo additional time at sea to return at younger ages to spawn. Thus, they had less time to fatten and grow.
The researchers say that may reflect, in part, climate change, which has included periodic warming of ocean temperatures that has reduced the availability of prime food resources. Meanwhile, there has been increased competition among some species of salmon for the food that is available.
Hatcheries in both Asia and North America also have been expanding their release of young salmon to augment the harvests.
The co-authors wrote that there are difficult decisions to be made about the scale of hatchery releases into the ocean, They found that new “tools” are urgently needed to quantify “the apparent trade-offs between the releases of one species and the impacts of size and productivity … on other species.”
on Twitter: @hbernton.
In 2016, B.C.’s auditor-general highlighted the shortfall between the estimated cost of cleanup of operating and closed mines and the security held by the province was significant, at $1.2 billion.
Author of the article:
Aug 21, 2020 • Last Updated 19 days ago • 3 minute read
The estimated $100-million cost of cleanup and long-term monitoring of the former Tulsequah Chief copper mine site in northwest B.C. will likely be footed by taxpayers.
The most recent owner of the mine site, Chieftain Metals, went bankrupt in 2016 before being able to restart operations. The mine only operated in the 1950s when owned by Cominco.
B.C. holds only $1 million security for up to $100-million cleanup of Tulsequah Chief mine
The province holds a $1.075-million letter of credit for cleanup for the work carried out by Chieftain Metals, but that is its only surety to pay for reclamation and closure of the remote mine site near the Alaskan border, according to information from the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum.
Even though the mine operated at a time when there was no requirement for security to reclaim sites and for long-term mine water discharge, the huge cost to the taxpayer underscores the necessity for the province to require companies to pay reclamation costs up front before they are given permits to start operations, say mine policy reform advocates.
Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the University of Victoria’s environmental law centre, said the estimated $100-million tab, which includes monitoring and maintenance for 100 years, will be born by the public.
“That’s the invoice that reflects the bosom-buddy relationship between the government of British Columbia and mining companies,” said Sandborn.
The acid run-off from the Tulsequah Chief mine into the Taku River has been a long-standing sore point for B.C. and Alaskan First Nations and environmentalists, as well as the Alaskan government.
The new cleanup estimate, released by the province in a reclamation plan earlier this month, is much higher than the previous estimate of $12 million.
In a written response, B.C.’s chief inspector of mines, Herman Henning, said the previous reclamation estimate was for work carried out to restart the mine by Chieftain and another previous owner, Redfern Resources, and not for historic contamination. Redfern went bankrupt in 2009.
Henning said responsibility for the mine site cannot be fully resolved until a four-year receivership process is concluded in an Ontario court. A judge’s decision on whether to conclude the bankruptcy is expected soon.
“The province continues to explore all possible options for holding all past and present owners of the Tulsequah Chief mine accountable,” Henning said in an email.
Reports from the University of Victoria environmental law centre, the B.C. First Nations Energy Mining Council and Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs have called on the province in the past several years to beef up its requirements for companies to provide full security for mine reclamation.
Jurisdictions such as Quebec and Alaska already require mining companies do so.
“I think this is just a really stark reminder that we need to update our reclamation policy and make sure the polluter pays,” said Smithers-based Northern Confluence Initiative director Nikki Skuce of the $100-million cleanup pricetag.
B.C. takes a risk-based approach, where security depends on the stage of mine life, a company’s financial strength and compliance history.
In 2016, B.C.’s auditor-general highlighted the shortfall between the estimated cost of cleanup of operating and closed mines and the security held by the province was significant, at $1.2 billion.
The latest figures from the province, from 2018, also pegs that liability at $1.2 billion.
Following the auditor-general’s report, the then-B.C. Liberal government acknowledged its security requirements for mine reclamation and closure needed to be examined.
The NDP government, elected in 2017, has continued a review of reclamation security policy and practices, expected to be complete by the end of the year.
In a written response, Henning said mining companies are responsible for reclamation liabilities on their sites whether a bond is held by government or not. “The security is only used in the event that a mining company defaults on their obligations,” he said.
Press Pool, Indian Country Today
Original publication can be found here.
Like Alaska’s Pebble mine, this project is located in the wrong place
News ReleaseSoutheast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission
Seabridge Gold has asked British Columbia for an extension on starting construction of what would be the largest open pit mine in North America. British Columbia‘s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy says it is considering Seabridge Gold’s request. In an article in THE NARWAHL by Stephanie Wood (https://thenarwhal.ca/ksm-mine-seabridge-gold-extension-covid-19), a Ministry spokesperson said the environmental assessment office will “initiate a review process with technical advisors and Indigenous nations to review the request.”
The Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC) asks British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy to deny the extension. “Say “No” to this extension request” said Rob Sanderson, Jr, Vice President of Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and Chair of Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission. “We look forward to our involvement in this review process.”
Added Jennifer Hanlon of Yakutat Tlingit Tribe and Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Vice Chair. “KSM already needs an updated Environmental Assessment. Seabridge asking for a construction extension is a perfect time to also ask for a new Environmental Assessment.”
Seabridge Gold argues in THE NARWAHL article that another 5-year extension for the Kerr Sulphurets Mitchell mine project is necessary due to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. But as noted in the article, Dr. David Chambers, founder and president of the Center for Science in Public Participation, “would like to see another environmental analysis, rather than a permit extension. With a five-year extension already granted for the mine, its environmental analysis is quite dated.” Also noted, since receiving its certificate, Seabridge Gold did more exploration and found more minerals than initially proposed.
“I don’t believe that COVID-19 prevents Seabridge from getting a partner to build the KSM mine,” says Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission Executive Director Frederick Olsen, Jr. “Gold prices keep rising, silver prices are similar to 2014. Why won’t investors buy in? They must be paying attention. Like Alaska’s Pebble mine, this project is located in the wrong place.”
British Columbia recently passed legislation to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples throughout its legal system. “Here in Ketchikan and Saxman, we hope we can take British Columbia at their word,” said Sylvia Banie, Vice President of the Organized Village of Saxman and Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission’s Secretary. “KSM would be huge and so close to us. Our people need a say in the process.”
“These guys do their best work in the dark but every once in a while, they have to come out into the light,” said Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission’s Sanderson. “This is another chance to pay attention.”
Mud released by a burst tailings dam at an iron mine near Brumadinho, Brazil, killed 270 people in 2019.
Catastrophic failures raise alarm about dams containing muddy mine wastes
By Warren Cornwall Aug. 20, 2020 , 11:00 AM
Read the original publication here.
The dam, a 40-meter wall of rocks and dirt, gave way without warning, unleashing a torrent of mud. Within a day, some 21 million cubic meters of gray goo and water—the tailings waste left behind by 16 years of copper and gold mining at the Mount Polley mine in western Canada—escaped from a holding pond behind the dam, buried a creek, and poured into Quesnel Lake, home to one-third of British Columbia’s legendary Fraser River sockeye salmon.
The 2014 Mount Polley disaster shocked mining engineers around the world. Many considered Canada a leader in developing rules aimed at preventing the failure of such tailings dams, and respected the mine’s owner, Imperial Metals. “That wasn’t supposed to be able to happen,” Jim Kuipers, an engineer and former tailings dam manager who now consults for environmental groups, recalls a colleague telling him.
Since then, the sense of crisis has deepened. In 2015, a tailings dam in Brazil collapsed, unleashing a mammoth mud spill that killed 19 people, contaminated 668 kilometers of river, and reached the Atlantic Ocean. In 2018, a dam failed at a major mine in Australia; luckily, a second barrier prevented disaster. Last year, a dam disintegrated at a decommissioned Brazilian iron mine, releasing a torrent that killed 270 people.
Engineers fear more catastrophes await, as the world confronts a swelling volume of muddy mine tailings, contained by more and larger dams. Some rise to nearly the height of the Eiffel Tower and hold back enough waste to fill Australia’s Sydney Harbor. “The consequences of a failure are getting much bigger,” says Priscilla Nelson, a geotechnical engineer at the Colorado School of Mines.
In response, scientists, governments, environmentalists, and miners are searching for safer ways to handle the tainted mud. Some are trying to simply inventory the world’s tailings dams—estimates of the number range from 3500 to 21,000—and identify those most at risk of failure. A few have called for a ban on one common but failure-prone design. Others are working on regulatory and management fixes. “The mining industry,” says Joseph Scalia, a geotechnical engineer at Colorado State University, “is realizing they can’t just spend as little as possible and the problem is going to go away.”
TAILINGS ARE THE TRASH of the mining world. To extract most metals, from iron to gold, miners often mix pulverized rock with water, creating a milkshake of silt and gravel. As higher quality mineral deposits run out, miners are turning to lower grade sources that generate more waste. Worldwide, the metal content of copper ore has fallen by nearly half since the mid–20th century. Extracting a single kilogram of copper can now produce 200 kilograms of sludge. The muck is often contaminated with toxic metals or minerals that produce sulfuric acid when exposed to air.
Tailings dams, unlike those built to store water or generate power, don’t earn revenue, creating an incentive for mine owners to minimize costs. Many are built piecemeal throughout the life of a mine. And the barriers are often made from a mixture of rock and the tailings themselves, rather than a more uniform and predictable material such as concrete. Those factors contribute to a failure rate that, over the past century, was more than 100 times higher than that of reservoir and power dams, according to one estimate.
Each disaster has its own constellation of causes, but some arise from seemingly trivial errors. At Mount Polley, investigators led by Norbert Morgenstern, a geotechnical engineer at the University of Alberta concluded that part of the dam was built on a weak patch of silt and clay. Exploratory boreholes drilled prior to construction were too shallow to find the problem. Builders further weakened the dam by making its walls steeper than planned, after the company ran short of rock. One night, the weight of the sludge became more than the dam could bear.
It could have been much worse. No one died. Workers ultimately repaired the dam and shoveled up much of the mud that had buried the creek. (The company says the spill didn’t cause long-term harm to the Quesnel Lake ecosystem, but some ecologists say it’s still too early to tell.)
Morgenstern, who also led the investigations into the 2015 Brazilian incident and the 2018 Australia failure, has found that faulty engineering, including inadequate scrutiny of the underlying geology, was at the heart of all but two of 15 major incidents between 1980 and 2015.
One major problem, he says, is the “normalization of deviance.” The phrase, coined after the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, describes how engineers can be lulled into accepting a series of seemingly small risks that snowball into a catastrophe.
There is an unwritten covenant that regulators and mine owners can count on engineers to design a safe tailings system, Morgenstern told a gathering of Brazilian geotechnical engineers in 2018. “That covenant,” he said, “has been broken.”
THE SEARCH IS ON for fixes. Some mining watchdogs are calling for replacing one common type of dam, called an upstream dam, and banning future use of the design. Upstream dams are built in stairlike stages, heading upstream over the accumulating tailings (see graphic, above). Part of the weight of each added step is borne by the tailings below. This approach is often the cheapest, because the tailings serve as construction material.
More than 40% of major tailings dams are the upstream design, according to a global inventory of more than 1700 dams recently launched by pension funds of Sweden and the Church of England, which have pressed the mining industry to strengthen environmental and safety measures. A study of 8000 tailings dams in China found that 95% were upstream dams. And such dams are involved in three-quarters of tailings dam failures, according to one estimate.
The problem is that tailings aren’t a predictable building material, and they are often waterlogged. The water can act like a lubricant, reducing the friction that binds an earthen dam together. Engineering flaws such as poor drainage can exacerbate the problem. In extreme cases—such as the 2019 disaster at the Brazilian iron mine—dam sections simply liquefy.
In Chile, where earthquakes make upstream dams even riskier, the government has forbidden the design since 1970. Brazil banned them in the wake of the 2019 accident, and has ordered the mothballing of all upstream dams by 2027. Worldwide, such a policy could mean the demise of thousands of mines and tailings dams (which could be replaced by dams with different designs). Although such a change might be expensive for companies, right now communities near dams are bearing the costs of cheaper construction, says Payal Sampat of Earthworks, a nonprofit group that promotes mining reforms. “That is unacceptable.”
Some experts caution against a one-size-fits-all approach. Upstream dams can perform safely, particularly in places with dry climates and few earthquakes, says David Williams, a geotechnical engineer at the University of Queensland, St. Lucia. “You can construct [an upstream dam] to be perfectly safe. You can also build it in a not so good way.”
One knowledge gap is an understanding of the forces that can suddenly turn an earthen dam into a liquid river of mud. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, geotechnical engineer Jorge Macedo is stress testing tailings in his lab to document the conditions that trigger liquefaction, particularly in silt, a little-studied material that is common in tailings used to build upstream dams.
Other researchers are looking at better ways to spot dams on the verge of failure. Moe Momayez, an engineer and geophysicist at the University of Arizona, is testing sensors on an Arizona dam that track temperature and moisture levels. Some dams are already equipped with radar or lasers that watch for worrying bulges. Momayez’s goal is to integrate streams of data in a computer system that can spot problems that might escape periodic inspections. “We have a pretty good idea how these tailing dams fail,” Momayez says. “The question is, can we predict that, can we get ahead of the curve?”
Some engineers would like to simply eliminate the need for massive dams. “The best tailings dam is no dam at all,” Nelson says. She is studying whether mine waste can be melted into glasslike fibers that could be used for textiles or reinforcing concrete. In June, mining giant BHP said it would spend $10 million to study such reuse of copper tailings.
A more mature approach is to wring the water from tailings, creating waste the consistency of damp earth, which can be sculpted into mountains. The leftovers can still be toxic, but there’s less danger of a devastating flood, says Jan Morrill of Earthworks. “Filtered tailings should be considered the industry standard,” Morrill says.
Although the approach has been around for decades, it’s rarely used, representing just 4% of tailings systems in the pension funds’ inventory. Filtered tailings systems can cost five to 10 times more than a conventional dam, says Harvey McLeod, a geological engineer who designs tailings dams for Klohn Crippen Berger, a private firm. It’s also an enormous challenge to process tailings at big mines churning out 100,000 tons of waste per day, particularly in wet climates. “It’s easier said than done,” McLeod says.
MANY GROUPS are also pushing for regulatory and management reforms. After the 2019 Brazilian disaster, investment funds worth more than $10 trillion helped bring together officials from industry, government, and the investor group Principles for Responsible Investment to create a set of global guidelines for tailings dam construction. Earlier this month, the coalition issued its plan, calling for stiffer engineering standards for new dams. It also urges top mining executives, rather than lower level staff, to be responsible for tailings safety, and for independent experts to review companies’ waste plans. But it doesn’t push for a ban on upstream dams.
Morgenstern notes that similar reforms he and others suggested in the late 1990s, after an earlier string of dam disasters, were never fully embraced. He expects it won’t become clear until the end of the year whether the new proposals will fare better. Still, he’s heartened that, after the recent tragedies, muddy mine waste is again in the spotlight. “The tree,” he says, “has been shaken.”
Warren Cornwall Warren Cornwall is freelance journalist in Washington State.
By Bob Weber | News, Politics | August 20th 2020
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson speaks via video link during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 14, 2020. File photo by The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick
The federal government will join an environmental assessment of a major expansion to a proposed southern British Columbia coal mine.
"The potential for adverse effects ... may not be mitigated through project design, the application of standard mitigation measures, or through existing legislative mechanisms," says an analysis from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada.
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson used the analysis to make his decision, released Wednesday, on the Teck Resources project.
He had already reversed an earlier ruling and announced that Ottawa would take part in a review of the proposed Vista coal project in Alberta. Several other companies have made known their plans to mine coal in that province.
Teck is planning an expansion to its network of coal mines in the Elk Valley area of southeastern B.C. The Castle project would increase the area being mined by about one-third and allow the company to maintain production of steel-making coal at 27,400 tonnes a day.
The review involves fisheries, First Nations and international relations — all areas of federal jurisdiction. The mine expansion would also produce significantly more coal than the threshold required for a federal review.
Teck spokesman Chad Pederson called Wednesday's announcement an "unfortunate decision."
"The Castle project has already been proceeding through a rigorous provincial environmental review process," he said in a statement.
"We will work with the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office and the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada to ensure a co-ordinated review and seek to avoid duplication."
Wilkinson was not available for an interview.
B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman said the province will co-ordinate federal involvement.
The federal government will join an environmental assessment of a major expansion to a proposed southern British Columbia coal mine."I appreciate that they understand and have committed to working within provincial timelines while they review matters of federal jurisdiction, such as trans-border issues," he said in an email.
Lars Sander-Green of Wildsight, one of the groups that asked for a federal assessment, thanked Wilkinson for the decision.
"If Teck can’t show how they can reduce selenium pollution downstream of their mines in the long term ... then no reasonable environmental assessment should approve this mine,” he wrote.
The decision also has implications for Alberta, where the government has said it hopes to increase the province's production of steel-making coal.
Ian Urquhart, conservation director for the Alberta Wilderness Association, welcomed the Teck decision.
"The federal process is a more open, accessible process" — especially compared with Alberta's, he said.
Urquhart said Ottawa had little choice but to step in.
Teck's Pederson said the Castle project is "part of the existing Fording River operations and is necessary to maintain the associated jobs and economic activity."
The company's existing mines in the area are responsible for significant problems with selenium, an element toxic in large amounts. Reports on concentrations in area waterways show levels up to four times B.C.'s maximum for drinking water. Monitoring stations near the mines have reported levels 50 times what's recommended for aquatic health.
Teck's own research has reported the near-disappearance of rare cutthroat trout from a 60-kilometre stretch of the Fording River downstream from the company's four mines.
That water flows into the cross-border Koocanusa Reservoir. The reservoir drains into the Kootenai River, which flows about 200 kilometres across Montana and Idaho.
That contamination was a main concern of eight interveners who asked Ottawa to assist British Columbia in reviewing the expansion.
Those interveners included five First Nations on both sides of the border, 34 environmental organizations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Direct and cumulative impacts from coal mining in the Elk Valley have resulted documented impacts to Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River water quality, fish and fish habitat in the U.S," says the protection agency's submission.
Urquhart suggests Wilkinson's Teck and Vista decisions are a warning to the Alberta government, which recently revoked a decades-old policy restricting coal development in the province's foothills and mountains.
"The issue this creates for Alberta is just how difficult it is, even with changes to the coal policy, to have as much control over coal development as (cabinet ministers) would like the province to have."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2020
On a climate scale of 10, thermal coal is right at the top with metallurgical coal only slightly less egregious at ~7.5. There is no longer any justification for burning thermal coal to generate electricity anywhere on the planet given the cost effective, clean renewable alternatives. To continue to do so is merely a bottom line, ideological decision.
However, steel is a vital material. Having acknowledged the great utility of steel, anthracite should now be classified as nothing less than a temporary transition fuel and source of carbon for steel making until emerging low emission metallurgical technologies are developed to maturity, hopefully catalyzed as a climate change mitigation priority.
One such process uses electrolysis with zero emission electricity in place of combustion in a furnace. MIT, under the direction of Canadian scientist Dr. Donald Sadoway, has developed this technology in a high-temperature furnace located in their lab. They went on to form a company named Boston Steel to market this tech. The team also developed a high-capacity, scalable and long-lasting liquid metal battery using common, cheap materials, a marriage made in heaven for intermittent wind, solar and tidal power. This group is clearly on the leading edge and should be given priority funding and field test opportunities by governments and the private sector.
So, how about it Mr. Wilkinson? Will the federal government not only give the coal expansion projects a serious environmental review that places climate change at the top of the list, but also use the rumoured upcoming green pandemic recovery response to put very promising technological projects and job creation strategies like these near the front of the line, right after transit, conservation and renewable energy?
If granted, the extension would give the company 12 years to achieve a ‘substantial start’ on the mine, which has critics calling for a new assessment of environmental impacts
Aug 19, 2020
The owner of the proposed KSM mine in northwest B.C., situated atop one of the largest undeveloped gold deposits in Canada, has asked the province for an emergency two-year extension on its environmental assessment certificate, citing delays caused by COVID-19.
The mine’s owner, Toronto-based Seabridge Gold, originally received approval for the project in 2014, under an environmental assessment certificate that stated the project must be “substantially started” within five years.
In 2018, the company received a five-year extension to its environmental assessment certificate. If Seabridge’s request for an emergency extension is granted, the mine will end up having 12 years to achieve a substantial start on the mine from the time it was initially approved.
Seabridge Gold’s senior vice president of environmental affairs, Brent Murphy, told The Narwhal it needs more time to find an experienced mining company as a business partner. “Seabridge Gold has had interest from several companies to partner on the KSM project, however, the metals prices over the past few years have not been favourable for such an investment,” Murphy said in a written statement. Seabridge Gold has estimated the project will cost more than $6 billion to build. It predicts the mine will generate over $30 billion GDP within the province and $20 billion in the rest of Canada over its 52-year lifespan.
The KSM mine site is located 65 kilometres north of Stewart, B.C., and 30 kilometres northeast of the B.C.-Alaska border.
If built, the gold, copper, silver and molybdenum mine will entail three open pits and two underground mines. The mining tenure covers 60,000 hectares, an area the size of 148 Stanley Parks. Once built, the mine could produce up to 130,000 tonnes of ore per day.
The mine’s proposed tailings facility is designed to store 2.3 billion tonnes of tailings. Its tallest dam will be 239 metres high, which is 18 metres taller than the Hoover Dam. The project initially required mining under an active glacier, but that glacier has now retreated.
The Mount Polley mine had a total tailings storage volume of 44 million cubic metres. B.C.’s transboundary mines require much higher volumes of waste storage. The tailings facility at Red Chris can store up to 305 million cubic metres of mine waste. Shaft Creek has a storage volume of 588 million cubic metres and KSM a staggering 1,213 million cubic metres.
B.C.’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy told The Narwhal it is considering Seabridge Gold’s request. A spokesperson said the environmental assessment office will “initiate a review process with technical advisors (provincial, federal and local government agencies) and Indigenous nations to review the request.”
After that review, the office will submit its review to its chief executive assessment officer for a decision.
Delay must be ‘in the public interest’
The Environmental Assessment Act typically only allows certificate deadlines to be extended once, but companies are able to apply for an emergency provision under the Environmental Assessment Act for another extension.
Seabridge Gold made its request in March. In May, the acting chief executive assessment officer for B.C.’s environmental assessment office replied explaining the challenges the project faces must be “directly related to the emergency” and the delay must be “in the public interest.” He asked Seabridge to explain how the project’s inability to meet its 2024 deadline were directly related to delays to the 2020 field season and “why lost time cannot be made up in the coming four years.”
A helicopter traverses Salmon Glacier, the fifth largest glacier in North America, near the proposed location of the KSM mine. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal
In a response dated July 3, 2020, Seabridge Gold’s president and chief operating officer, Jay Layman, wrote “not having a JV [joint-venture] partner this year impacts our ability to initiate and ultimately complete the project feasibility study.”
In order to complete the feasibility study and begin construction, Layman said Seabridge needed a partner that could provide an additional investment between $600 million and $750 million. Seabridge Gold focuses on acquiring deposits and doing exploration, then selling them or creating a joint venture to get mines built, not building mines on its own.
He said the company had been expecting a proposal from prospective partners in March that was called off because of COVID-19.
Layman went on to say COVID-19 has disrupted markets and depressed the copper market, and that their financial advisors expected markets not to stabilize until 18 to 24 months after the end of the pandemic. He also said field work and permitting have slowed down, and delayed federal regulatory approvals to impact fish habitat.
He said Seabridge has met 26 of the 41 conditions in its environmental assessment certificate to date.
KSM’s environmental analysis ‘dated,’ expert says David Chambers, founder and president of the Centre for Science in Public Participation, has 40 years of experience in mineral exploration and development. He said the KSM mine is proposed in a very difficult area with unpredictable weather and lots of water that needs to be diverted.
With a five-year extension already granted for the mine, Chambers said “its environmental analysis is quite dated.” In addition, since receiving its certificate, Seabridge Gold did more exploration and found more minerals than initially proposed.
“I would like to see another environmental analysis, rather than a permit extension,” he said.
But he added he doesn’t find Seabridge Gold’s request “unreasonable” considering the impacts of COVID-19 on government and industry.
Seabridge Gold may be taking a long time to find a partner because KSM mine “isn’t a sure bet,” Chambers said, and the $6 billion expense and challenging topography make it harder for a company to “justify that kind of investment.”
Greg Knox, executive director of SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, said he finds COVID-19 to be “a poor excuse” for a further extension.
“They’ve had five years since their permit. They received another five years and we’re only a year into that extension and they’re already asking for additional time,” he said.
Rugged peaks and glaciers near the proposed KSM mine. The KSM mine project is composed of four mineral deposits, the Kerr, Sulphurets, Mitchell and Iron Cap. The view north in this image shows the proposed location of the Sulphurets open pit mine and future waste rock dump. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal
It wouldn’t be the first time a controversial B.C. development has lost its environmental assessment certificate due to failing to start work on the project. Jumbo Glacier Resort received its certificate in 2004, was given an extra five years to substantially start the project by 2014, and still hadn’t met the conditions of the certificate by that year. The Minister of Environment at the time deemed the certificate invalid. The company launched an appeal, but the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the decision last year.
Knox said he’d also like to see the mine reviewed under the new provincial Environmental Assessment Act and the new federal Impact Assessment Act.
If Seabridge Gold is not able to achieve a substantial start by 2024, “it should be required to undergo a new environmental assessment,” he said.
“Regulations change, mining practices change and the public should be provided a new opportunity to ensure this project is built in the best possible manner that minimizes risks.”
People in B.C. and Alaska are concerned about contamination and harm to fish habitat. Mining will take place in the Mitchell and Sulphurets watersheds, which drain into the transboundary Unuk River. Seabridge has countered this criticism by pointing out water will be taken away from the mine site via a 23-kilometre pipeline and treated at the tailings management facility. That facility will be located in the Teigen and Treaty watersheds, which drain into the salmon-bearing Bell-Irving and Nass Rivers.
Seabridge Gold has also said it’s exceeded the environmental requirements of its certificate by focusing on smaller open pits, converting to electric equipment instead of diesel and working to improve water treatment.
However, Chris Sergeant, a research scientist at the University of Montana who studies Alaskan salmon populations, said the proposed mine may still impact water quality in the Unuk River.
“Water that contacts the mine on the Unuk River side will drain directly into a water storage reservoir,” Sergeant said. “This water would receive treatment before discharge into the Unuk watershed.”
But there isn’t currently a proven method for sufficient removal of selenium — which has been shown to negatively impact fish populations — and mine operations are expected to increase selenium levels in the water, Sergeant said.
Article updated at 10:40 a.m. PST on Aug. 20, 2020, to add comment from Chris Sergeant.
PUBLISHED BYStephanie WoodSteph Kwetásel'wet Wood is a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh journalist living and writing in North Vancouver. She writes stories about Indigenous rights, the…
Federal decision comes on the heels of new research from the U.S. Geological Survey that will help inform selenium guidelines to ensure safety of fish in cross-border lake
Aug 19, 2020
8 min read
The Canadian government will undertake an environmental review of Teck Resources’ Castle Mountain coal mine, a decision that comes after several environmental organizations, Indigenous groups and U.S. government agencies called for federal involvement in the project.
Wednesday’s announcement of a federal assessment follows the release of new U.S. Geological Survey research, which local environmental organization Wildsight says suggests British Columbia may need more stringent guidelines for selenium pollution to safely protect fish in a lake that spans the border with Montana.
As Teck plans to expand its coal mining operations in the Kootenays, the new U.S. report was seen by critics as further reason for Ottawa to undertake a federal impact assessment of the company’s Castle Mountain project.
For years, environmental groups have been ringing alarm bells over selenium pollution from Teck coal mines and, in particular, the risks to aquatic life. High concentrations of the element have been found to cause deformities and reproductive failure in fish.
Environment and Climate Change Canada Minister Jonathan Wilkinson considered “the potential for the proposed project to cause adverse effects within areas of federal jurisdiction, as well as cumulative effects in the Elk Valley and across provincial and national borders, in particular to fish, fish habitat, species at risk and Indigenous peoples,” Moira Kelly, a spokesperson for the minister, said in a statement.
“We thank Minister Wilkinson for making the right decision to order a federal assessment for the Castle coal mine,” said Lars Sander-Green, a science and communications analyst focused on mining at Wildsight, in a statement.
“Castle would take down an entire mountain, could send dangerous water pollution hundreds of kilometres downstream and cut off travel routes for bears and other wildlife,” he said.
“With Teck’s five existing mines in the Elk Valley and decades of mining already permitted, we desperately need a real assessment of the overall impacts from so much mountain-top removal coal mining in one valley.”
While Castle Mountain is already undergoing a provincial review, Sander-Green said last week he had “very little confidence” the B.C. process would result in anything other than approval of the project.
Taseko’s Prosperity mine in Tsilhqot’in territory turned into a 12-year saga after the mine was approved by the provincial government, despite being rejected twice by the federal government. Earlier this spring the Supreme Court denied the company leave to appeal the federal government’s rejection of the project.
Teck spokesperson Chad Pederson called the federal decision “unfortunate,” noting in a statement that the project was already going through a “rigorous provincial environmental review process.”
“We are hopeful that the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada will focus on a timely assessment that is fair and efficient,” he said.
B.C. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman also raised the issue of timelines in a statement on Wednesday.
“The Environmental Assessment Office has been engaging fully with the federal government and will coordinate its involvement in B.C.’s new [assessment] process for both timeliness and effectiveness,” Heyman said. “I appreciate that they understand and have committed to working within provincial timelines while they review matters of federal jurisdiction, such as trans-border issues.”
Kelly said the federal government “believes firmly in the principle of ‘one project, one review.’ To that end, the Impact Assessment Agency will cooperate closely with the British Columbia Environmental Assessment Office to ensure a timely and predictable process.”
The Castle Mountain project is billed as an expansion of Teck Resources’ Fording River mine and as such was not automatically subject to a federal review.
But in his decision, Wilkinson stated that some concerns about the project — including “effects to transboundary environments, fish and fish habitat, and Indigenous peoples” — fall under federal jurisdiction or may not be fully addressed by the provincial environmental assessment or through project permitting.
In its analysis report, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada said the Castle Mountain project “would be the largest coal mine in B.C. and one of the largest in Canada” and “has a high likelihood to cause direct and cumulative effects to areas of federal jurisdiction.”
According to Teck Resources’ project description, steelmaking coal from Castle Mountain, which is still in the design phase, would be processed at its Fording River operations for several decades.
Concerns over selenium pollution from Teck’s minesThe recently published research from the U.S. Geological Survey suggests B.C. may need tougher guidelines, Sander-Green said.
The goal of the new report, which was posted online earlier this month, was to model the potential for selenium exposure and bioaccumulation in the Lake Koocanusa ecosystem to inform the development of selenium guidelines specific to the cross-border reservoir.
Sander-Green said the modelling work shows “that in order to keep fish in the reservoir safe, we need a much lower selenium pollution limit than the one B.C. has and much lower than the numbers that we’ve already seen.”
Selenium levels measured in the Elk River 3.5 kilometres upstream from where it flows into Lake Koocanusa have exceeded B.C. guidelines of 2 parts per billion (ppb) since 1993, according to the U.S. report.
Experts from the B.C. and Montana governments as well as technical representatives from First Nations, U.S. tribes, industry and environmental organizations, which are all part of a cross-border working group focused on monitoring and research in the Lake Koocanusa watershed, are now reviewing the modelling information in the new U.S. Geological Survey report, a spokesperson for the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said in a statement.
“For the past few years the working group has been focused on reviewing selenium guidelines for Koocanusa Reservoir, which led to the development of the USGS modelling report and supporting materials,” the statement said.
“The modelling and report will be used to inform a selenium value for the Lake Koocanusa water quality objective. A public comment period on a draft selenium water quality objective for Lake Koocanusa will proceed in the fall.”
Meanwhile, Teck Resources says it is making “significant progress towards achieving the objectives of the Elk Valley water quality plan.” Spokesperson Chris Stannell said the initiative takes into account Teck’s development plans over the next 20 years, including the Castle Mountain project.
He noted Teck’s first water treatment facility at its Line Creek operations is treating up to 7.5 million litres of water today and the company is seeing lower selenium concentrations downstream. Another facility is treating upto 10 million litres of water affected by the mine at the company’s Elkview operations and the company is working to double its treatment capacity. He also said Teck is building two more water treatment facilities at its Fording River operations.
“In 2021, we expect to have capacity to treat up to 47.5 million litres per day, and we expect significant reductions of selenium and nitrate in the watershed as a result,” he said.
But Sander-Green said selenium pollution will continue to flow from mine waste rock for centuries to come. Teck’s “hideously expensive” water treatment plants are not a long-term solution, he added.
First Nations, U.S. tribes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Montana and a number of environmental groups had all called on Wilkinson to designate the project for a federal assessment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency noted in a letter to the president of the Impact Assessment Agency that “the project has the potential to cause adverse effects, including impacts to the environment both inside and outside Canada.”
“Direct and cumulative impacts from coal mining in the Elk Valley have resulted in documented impacts to Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River water quality, fish, and fish habitat in the U.S.” the letter says.
The agency also expressed concern that new projects would increase pollution in the lake and river.
In a May letter to Wilkinson, meanwhile, the Tribal Councils of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho wrote that a federal review of the project is needed to ensure consideration of “on-going and future mining contamination to water quality, fish, wildlife, and traditional cultural uses by our Nations.”
The letter also raised concerns about a “lack of demonstrated, successful technology to mitigate mining contamination and reduce risks to water quality and aquatic life.”
“For many years, the province of B.C., state of Montana and Teck mining company have separately and at times collectively promised to fix existing problems and for as many years have failed to yield improvements to water quality and stop degradation of water and the fish, wildlife, and human uses dependent on Teck’s and B.C.’s effluent into the U.S.,” the letter said.
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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