OPINION: Historic mineral claims left a small sensitive area open for mining at the junction of the twin jewels of B.C. Parks, Manning and Skagit Valley Parks, and development of a mine would profoundly degrade their values.
Author of the article:
Mike Harcourt, Ken Farquharson
Jul 19, 2020 • Last Updated 1 month ago • 4 minute read
This photo shows the general area of the Upper Smitheram Creek Valley in the Donut Hole that Imperial Metals is proposing to explore. The Switchback logging road on the right of the photo is the road they want to extend. The forested mountains in the near distance are all in Manning Park. This photo was taken in the summer of 2018 when the cut blocks you can see were being logged by B.C. Timber Sales.Article SidebarShareArticle contentFifty years ago, Canadians and Americans joined forces to save the Canadian Skagit Valley from High Ross Dam.
The 1984 Skagit River Treaty finally stopped the dam, and by 1995 B.C. established Skagit Valley Park. Yet the “Donut Hole” — an area of magnificent old growth where Highway 3 ascends toward Manning Park — was omitted from protection. Historic mineral claims from B.C.’s pre-environmental era left this small sensitive area open for mining at the headwaters of an international river — and the junction of the twin jewels of B.C. Parks.
Imperial Metals — which brought us the Mount Polley tailings dam collapse — owns the Giant Copper mineral claims in the upper Skagit. Since 2016 the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission (SEEC), established under the Skagit River Treaty, has sought to retire these tenures, but so far without success.
Yet the value of Imperial’s claims is questionable, from both mining and environmental perspectives. The Donut Hole has a long history of exploration, but no development — even during the era of lax regulation and high metal prices.
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This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.Article content continuedThe first claims staked by Cominco in 1930 and Invermay in 1933 were consolidated by the Canam Copper Company in 1950. By 1955 Mogul Mining had begun construction of a 100-man camp complex and a 1,450-metre adit to prepare for active mining. With falling copper prices, they walked away. Despite more exploration in the 1960s and Canam’s sale to Giant Mascot, no development took place. By 1974, Giant Mascot Mines removed its camp, and in 1988 it sold out to Bethlehem Resources Corporation, later to become Imperial Metals.
After further drilling in 1995 and 1996, Imperial stopped exploration, but for a minor program in 2017 and a fiercely opposed 2019 application for another permit. Over almost 90 years and five experienced companies, economics stymied development.
There are good reasons why a mine cannot succeed here. First, the mineral resource is clearly marginal. More important is the challenge of developing a mine adjacent to Manning and Skagit Provincial Parks on an international river. What might have been feasible in the pro-development 1950s, when impounding the wild Skagit River was also permissible, is now virtually inconceivable. Even if mining economics were favourable, what is the probability that Imperial Metals could ever obtain the necessary permits in British Columbia — let alone deal with objections from Americans downstream?
When the Skagit Treaty prevented flooding of B.C.’s Skagit Valley, it also created the SEEC, funded by B.C. and the City of Seattle. SEEC’s strong environmental mandate in the Skagit watershed includes the acquisition of mineral claims “consistent with conservation and recreation purposes.”
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This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.Article content continuedRetiring Imperial’s claims is vital for conservation. Development of a mine would profoundly degrade the values of Manning and Skagit Valley Parks. Downstream in the U.S., environmentalists and First Nations fear copper/acid mine drainage leaching from waste pits and tailings ponds. This could threaten fish stocks in the lower Skagit River — the most important salmon producer in Puget Sound. Washington State and Seattle City Light have spent millions upgrading the Skagit’s fish habitat. They fear a repeat of what mining did to extirpate salmon in B.C.’s Jordan and Tsolum rivers.
SEEC’s difficulty in negotiating to buy the “Donut Hole” claims is that Imperial still perceives them to have significant value. However, in 2016 an independent expert review concluded that development would require an on-site mill, that the ore identified would only support a mine for 10 years, that the price of copper would have to rise far above today’s price to be viable, and that very substantial environmental, social and permitting issues would materially affect viability.
Geography explains why the “Donut Hole” is a doubtful site for a successful mine. The review advised that mining would require an open pit operation with the waste dumps located on the north side of the Silverdaisy Ridge, facing Highway 3. The mill and tailings ponds would be in immediately uphill from Skagit Valley Park. A new 138kV transmission line from Hope would require permitting within Manning Park. Would British Columbians tolerate such impacts on one of B.C.’s best-loved landscapes?
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This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.Article content continuedIn addition, the only adequate water source for the mine would be the Skagit River, which flows entirely within the two provincial parks before entering the U.S. and the jurisdiction of the International Joint Commission.
Despite these effectively insurmountable constraints to mining in the Skagit “Donut Hole,” Imperial maintains that its claims have high value, even though it didn’t develop when copper prices were high. Impartial observers conclude that the main value of Imperial’s property is as a “holding for compensation.”
As SEEC’s slow dance with Imperial proceeds, the company should consider that objections to mining Giant Copper from Indigenous and environmental communities on both sides of the border will be strong, sustained and relentless. On the other hand, if the company sells the mining claims at a reasonable price, it could boldly restore its public image after Mount Polley. British Columbians would welcome the final unification of Skagit and Manning Parks and the permanent protection of the Skagit River. Imperial could yet be a hero in bringing this 90-year-old saga to a positive conclusion.
Mike Harcourt is former premier of B.C. Ken Farquharson is a retired civil engineer who has worked for 51 years to preserve the Skagit Valley.
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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