A final remediation plan released by the provincial government this week is seen as a positive step in ending six decades of pollution from the mine on the Alaska border — but it's still unclear who'll foot the bill
Matt Simmons, Local Journalism Initiative reporter Aug 13, 2020 9 min read
The Tulsequah Chief mine — which has been leaking contaminated water into a salmon watershed on the B.C.-Alaska border for over 60 years — will cost $48.7 million to clean up, according to a final remediation plan released by the B.C. government on Wednesday.
The cleanup effort will also cost up to $1 million a year for monitoring and maintenance in perpetuity, according to the plan. It’s unclear who will pay the cleanup tab, because the owner of the mine is in receivership.
The province, in collaboration with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, said it will begin work this summer to ready the Tulsequah Chief mine site for final closure.
“Taking action now is critical in order to begin to address the impacts of the former Tulsequah Chief mine,” George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, said in a press release.
The location of the abandoned Tulsequah Chief mine in relation to the Taku River watershed. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal
According to a 2016 report commissioned by Rivers Without Borders, a non-profit organization in that focuses on transboundary issues in B.C. and Alaska, an estimated one million litres of contaminated water flows into the Tulsequah River, a main tributary of the Taku River, every day.
“After more than 60 years of polluting a world class salmon watershed, two bankruptcies, four years of receivership proceedings and a lot of promises, we are finally seeing real progress toward mine cleanup and closure,” Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders said in a press release.
“We have some concerns with the closure and cleanup plan and as to how and when the plan will be implemented. But between B.C.’s strong demand to end the receivership process and the release of the cleanup and closure plan, there is real momentum toward ending pollution from the Tulsequah Chief.”
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Water at the Tulsequah Chief mine is contaminated due to acid rock drainage, which occurs when rock becomes oxidized and forms sulphuric acid, which leaches heavy metals out of the rock. The contaminated water includes copper and zinc, among other contaminants, at levels far exceeding safe standards.
The 113-page final remediation plan was prepared by SNC Lavalin and SRK Consulting and includes cost estimates and a conceptual five-year plan to permanently close the mine and contain the acid rock drainage.
Who will pay to close the Tulsequah Chief mine?
Teck-Cominco operated the Tulsequah Chief mine for seven years, before abandoning it in 1957. The company, a mining giant in Canada, never put systems in place to contain the toxic waste materials.
Chieftain Metals bought the property in 2010 to reopen the mine, on the condition that it addressed the acid rock drainage issues. It built an interim water treatment plant, but only operated it for less than a year before the company shut it down, citing high operational costs. Chieftain never achieved its goals of reopening the mine before going into receivership in 2016. This week, the company and its largest creditor, West Face Capital, attended a hearing at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to determine whether the receivership proceedings will be finalized or extended.
The decision on receivership is critical to determining the future of the mine site. West Face Capital could acquire the property through debt owed to the company by Chieftain Metals. If this happened, it would be in a position to sell the property to another mining company. In the hearing, West Face asked for an indefinite extension to the receivership so it can continue to pursue a buyer.
The Taku River Tlingit First Nation submitted its statements to the court, urging for a quick and final decision.
“Taku River Tlingit people are not currently able to exercise their Aboriginal rights at or around the mine site due to unsafe conditions and fears that plants and animals harvested from the area would be unhealthy to consume because of environmental contamination from the mine,” the statement read.
While it’s uncertain who will foot the bill for the eventual cleanup and closure of the mine, Teck has been involved in planning workshops for the reclamation report.
“We understand that a number of ongoing legal proceedings with respect to the site will need to come to a conclusion as a long-term approach is finalized,” Teck told The Narwhal in a statement. “However, as this process moves forward, we are supportive of the province and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation’s interim reclamation actions at the site.”
Last year, the Environmental Law Centre and more than 30 mining advocacy and legal organizations called on the B.C. government to reform its mining laws. Suggested changes included ensuring companies are held legally liable for cleanup and setting up requirements for long-term independent analysis of water treatment systems. Even if those reforms are implemented, legacies like Tulsequah could remain a direct cost to taxpayers.
While mining companies are required to provide money up front to the government to cover the costs of reclamation, the province currently only has $1.6 billion in bonds to cover an estimated $2.8 billion in reclamation costs.
“This small mining site is a stark reminder that we need to make sure the polluter pays and that we update our reclamation bond policy,” Nikki Skuce, director at Northern Confluence, said in an email. “It also reinforces that if you can’t clean up your mess because of costs, remoteness or complexities with the site, then you shouldn’t be able to mine at all. I think British Columbians would support no-go zones for mining and ensuring the polluter pays if it meant protecting salmon rivers and avoiding $50 million taxpayer clean-up bills.”
Location and complexity of the mine challenges reclamation efforts
Because the site is so remote, access has always been an issue driving up costs associated with reclamation. There is no road to the former mine — small aircraft and barge are the only ways to reach the site. Barging on the river can only be done in high flow, which means there is a very narrow window of time each year to get equipment to the site, and with tides affecting entry to the Taku River, the logistics are challenging. Extreme weather conditions further complicate access.
“Where the mouth of the Taku meets the salt water, a number of different mountain ranges and channels come together, and it can be just like a horrible washing machine, and very difficult to get through,” Zimmer with Rivers Without Borders told The Narwhal in an interview. “What we’ve seen in the past when the mining companies were trying to barge stuff up there, the barges were getting stuck everywhere.” But Zimmer said it’s still the obvious option. “Flying in a bulldozer is pretty expensive.”
Accessing the site via river also means crossing an international border, a lengthy bureaucratic process. Then, once the barge reaches a suitable landing site, the equipment still has to travel to the mine on road, which is in dire need of repair.
“Some of the first steps include replacing and repairing bridges, upgrading the access road, establishing an erosion protection berm and repairing the existing airstrip,” the ministry said in the press release.
Final remediation plans are a work in progress
Zimmer told The Narwhal the plan reads more like a plan for a plan, outlining several options and highlighting significant gaps in data.
“To call it a final plan could be confusing. It’s not the final plan. It’s kind of a framework that says here are the questions we need to answer, we need to do these studies, here are the options, and here are the pros and cons. So it’s still really hard to tell exactly how good this is going to be — it depends on how it’s implemented.”
The challenges of accessing the mine and the complexity of the site delayed field studies last year. This year, the outbreak of COVID-19 further delayed fieldwork. As The Narwhal recently reported, plans are underway to continue studies this summer, but it’s uncertain whether the recent announcement will include work on-site.
“The closure and reclamation plan outlines a phased approach that involves a series of steps designed to reduce the ongoing contamination,” the government statement said. “It is designed to be flexible, so changes can be made once more information is gathered from the site.”
Zimmer said he isn’t a fan of so-called “adaptive management” but given the site’s complexity, it’s the only way forward.
As for the actual closure of the mine, the report proposes three different options for controlling and addressing the water contamination issues. One dilutes the waste water with creek water to reduce the toxins to safe levels before it reaches the river. Another suggests controlling the rate at which the water is coming out, similarly to dilute and regulate the acidic content. And the last option proposes to inject the waste water underground into the aquifer beneath the Tulsequah River.
“There still seem to be a lot of unknowns in terms of water treatment options to deal with the copper, lead, zinc and other toxins that far exceed B.C. water quality guidelines,” said Skuce, the Northern Confluence director. “None of the options to dilute or bury the wastewater seem ideal, but it’s reassuring that the province is working with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and State of Alaska who highly value salmon and water quality.”
The report itself admitted each of the options has significant drawbacks, but said the site could require a combination of all of the methods of water treatment.
“The combination here of an acid-producing mine right next to salmon habitat, you know, it’s a bad combination,” Zimmer said. “And it points out the challenges of reclaiming these mines. Dealing with acid mine drainage, this stuff is insidious.”
Despite the obvious challenges ahead, Zimmer is optimistic. “Let’s get some things done now that we know we can do and hopefully we can stick to a good timeline. Overall, I think it’s a very good step forward.”
PUBLISHED BYMatt Simmons Matt Simmons is a writer and editor based in Smithers, B.C., unceded Gidimt’en Clan territory, home of the Wet'suwet'en/Witsuwit’en Nation.
Original article can be found here.
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.
By Mary Catharine Martin
July 28, 2020
An adult Chinook salmon in Ship Creek. Photo by Ryan Hagerty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceA new study has found that the answer to Alaska’s Chinook salmon decline lies not just in the ocean, but also in freshwater rivers and streams — and that climate change’s effects on Alaska’s freshwater systems are affecting king salmon.
“The take-home message is that what happens in freshwater really matters to the strength of our salmon runs in Alaska,” said University of Alaska Fairbanks research scientist Erik Schoen. “In a lot of ways, that’s good news, because we have some control over freshwater conditions in our salmon streams.”
The study, led by the University of Alaska, with data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Cook Inletkeeper and with help from additional authors as well, focused on 15 Chinook populations in Cook Inlet over a span of almost three decades. It found that heavier than average rainfall in late summer and fall leads to fewer surviving Chinook — the rain moves gravel, which displaces eggs. Those findings may be relevant to other regions, even those, like Southeast Alaska, which are typically rainy in the fall, because the key is “above average” rainfall — different river systems are adapted and optimized to different conditions, Schoen said.
On the positive side, the study also found that higher-than-average summer rainfall during juvenile rearing was good for Chinook.
Water temperatures above 64 degrees Fahrenheit for a week or more in the summer during spawning decreased Chinook productivity. In 2019, a year of record heat for the state, Alaska’s salmon made international headlines when water temperatures in some rivers rose above 80 degrees and thousands of salmon died of heatstroke before they could spawn.
All of these things are happening more as climate change, which is warming Alaska at twice the global average, also changes Alaska’s rain, snowpack, and glacial melt — and, accordingly, the flow, timing and temperature of its rivers. Climate change is also increasing “extreme precipitation events” across the state.
Sue Mauger, Cook Inletkeeper’s science and executive director, has seen those effects firsthand. She started collecting temperature data in Cook Inlet streams in 2002. Each successive July surprised her, she said, as the temperatures she collected got warmer and warmer. Then Chinook began to decline, leading to a closure of the sport fishery and, in 2012, a disaster declaration for the commercial fishery. (A disaster was declared for the Yukon and Kuskokwim king salmon fisheries the same year.)
This year, with cooler temperatures in Cook Inlet streams, things are looking up: the Mat-Su basin, which has been closed for Chinook sportfishing for many years, is now open. The Deshka River also made its lower escapement goal and, with cooler temperatures during spawning, more of those salmon eggs are likely to survive.
Some potential ways to lessen the effects of climate change and bolster Chinook salmon’s chances, Schoen said, are revegetating river banks and the areas bordering rivers and streams; identifying and preserving cold water habitat; culvert replacement to help mitigate the effect of heavy fall rains; and green infrastructure in urban salmon run areas like Mat-Su or the Kenai.
“The patterns we’re seeing in this changing climate help us understand that as land managers, as people living on these landscapes, we want to avoid having an impact that would exacerbate some of these changing conditions,” Mauger said. “For example, we want to make sure we are not constraining the rivers so that when we have fall floods, they’re worse. If summer rains are good because they allow fish to get into side channels, we need to be sure we keep those side channels. This is basically showing us our vulnerabilities and making sure we don’t have an additive negative effect to some of these changing climate effects. And, of course, anything we can do related to keeping streams, particularly warmer streams, as cool as possible will help.”
Ocean conditions are still extremely important to what is happening to Chinook. A next step, Mauger said, will be to start to work with oceanographers, marine biologists and ocean scientists, and to quantify the interaction between climate-driven freshwater and marine habitat changes on Chinook populations.
“This paper is a great example of the value of long-term data sets,” Mauger said. “It’s a culmination of lots of people and lots of little efforts that can get us to a bigger understanding.”
Read the full paper for free here: https://tinyurl.com/CookInletChinook
Watch a three-minute video about the project here: https://youtu.be/9xSISeNR1ro
Mary Catharine Martin is the communications director for SalmonState.
Jeff Lewis 5 MIN READ
TORONTO (Reuters) - A sweeping global standard that sets out how the world’s largest miners care for waste dams falls short of measures environmental and civil society groups say are needed to avert future disasters, according to a copy of the final draft seen by Reuters.
A panel of industry, investor and U.N. groups has been working for more than a year on the standard, triggered by the 2019 collapse of Vale SA’s (VALE3.SA) Brumadinho upstream tailings dam that killed more than 250 people. The standard is not binding but the panel expects that miners will adhere to it.
Tailings dams, some of which tower dozens of meters high and stretch for several kilometers, are the most common waste-disposal method for miners. Brazil has banned new upstream mining dams and ordered existing ones be deactivated by 2021.
The review did not cover technical design or look to exclude certain types such as upstream dams from future use. It is unclear how soon the new standard will be released and how quickly miners will adopt it.
Civil society groups had urged the panel to ban upstream dams while increasing accountability measures for corporate boards. Cheaper to build, upstream dams have higher risks because their walls are constructed over a base of muddy mining waste rather than on solid ground.
More than a third of the world’s tailings dams are at high risk of causing catastrophic damage to nearby communities if they crumble, a Reuters analysis of company data found last year. here
The final draft compels miners to study “all feasible sites, technologies and strategies” for new tailings facilities to reduce risks.
They would also be required to increase disclosure of risks while appointing one or more accountable executives with responsibility for tailings safety who are directly answerable to the chief executive and have regular communication with the board.
“They didn’t go far enough to really make changes that are going to significantly impact the safety of tailings dam management,” said David Chambers, a geophysicist and president of the Center for Science in Public Participation.
“You’re basically creating a sacrificial lamb, so that if something goes wrong you sacrifice the accountable executive and claim that it wasn’t your fault.”
The review panel is backed by the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM), the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) and ethical investor group Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI).
A March deadline for finalizing the standard was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic but all three groups have now endorsed the final draft, a PRI representative said.
The standard will have “clear consequences” for the way companies design tailings dams while underlining the responsibility of boards in decision-making, said Adam Matthews, head of the Church of England’s pension office.
“We are confident that if this standard is implemented, it will significantly improve safety across the mining sector,” he said.
ICMM Chief Executive Tom Butler said the standard is “deliberately not too prescriptive” and is a “comprehensive first step in terms of setting expectations across the industry.”
ICMM represents global miners Vale, BHP Group (BHP.AX), Glencore Plc (GLEN.L) and others. UNEP did not respond to a request for comment.
Under the standards, an independent safety review of the riskiest structures must be completed at least every five years, with limits to stop one contractor from conducting consecutive reviews on the same facility.
Such facilities would also face review “at appropriate intervals” by an independent tailings review board, the document said.
Miners must also show “adequate financial capacity (including insurance, to the extent commercially reasonable) is available” to cover closure and reclamation costs, it said.
Reporting by Jeff Lewis in Toronto; Editing by Matthew Lewis
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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