VANCOUVER—U.S. opposition to British Columbia’s mining practices ramped up this week as two coalitions called on the province to clean up its act.
The U.S. has had longstanding concerns about pollution from B.C. mines flowing into rivers that enter the country at both the northern and southern borders, affecting wildlife.
In a startling bipartisan move, eight U.S. senators — both Republicans and Democrats — addressed a letter to Premier John Horgan to urge him to reform the province’s mining industry. The letter dated June 13 highlighted both the weakness of B.C.’s mining and environmental laws along with a lack of international co-operation.
“We know we have a tremendous problem with contamination flowing from B.C.’s mining sector,” said Robyn Allan, former president and CEO of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, in a release.
“B.C.’s own auditor general has chided the province for our lax rules and lack of enforcement. We absolutely need to ensure … taxpayers don’t end up paying for industry shortfalls and to bring British Columbia’s mining practices into the 21st century.”
An auditor general report dated May 2016 suggested an abdication of government responsibility, finding that ministries had gaps in their resources, planning and tools and were not adequately monitoring and inspecting mines or enforcing regulations on companies.
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Waterways in the Kootenay watershed, which encompasses parts of Southern B.C., Montana and Idaho, were found to contain toxic concentrations of selenium, according to several Canadian and U.S. studies.
In 2013, Teck Resources, a mining company located in the Kootenay watershed, began what it said was a plan approved by the B.C. government to address the management of selenium in the Elk Valley watershed released by mining activities.
Last year, Teck Resources was ordered to pay $8 million to the Colville Confederated Tribes in the United States for decades of pollution that travelled through their territory.
And after almost four years of work, B.C. and Montana have yet to agree on a shared pollution limit, according to Lars Sander-Green of Wildsight, a B.C.-based environmental group.
Then in B.C.’s Northwest, Sander-Green said, acid drainage from a closed mine has been flowing for six decades into an Alaskan river, considered one of the most productive in the region for salmon.
The rights of Indigenous communities is a growing issue. Recently, 15 of Southeast Alaska’s 19 federally recognized tribes filed a human-rights petition about upstream mine pollution from B.C.
In early June, a report by B.C.’s First Nations Mining and Energy Council highlighted serious problems with the province’s reclamation bonding system, an arrangement in which companies have to provide for complete closure and cleanup of mines.
Unlike in B.C, in Alaska, full reclamation bonding is required up front.
“The amounts that mining companies have to provide in bonds to pay for cleanup are often wildly insufficient to deal with long-term water-pollution problems. And that puts everything downstream at risk,” explained Sander-Green.
Senators also highlighted that water-pollution issues have not been dealt with through the Boundary Waters Treaty, which prohibits pollution of shared rivers.
Meanwhile, a coalition of more than 110 groups — including environmental groups, elected officials, tribes and First Nations from both B.C. and Washington state — joined forces on Monday to oppose proposed mine exploration on Crown land near Manning Park, B.C.
They launched a paid print and digital media campaign calling on the province to deny a proposed mining permit in the Skagit Headwaters, which would allow exploration drilling over a five-year period.
The company proposing to mine the area is Imperial Metals. A spill at its Mount Polley mine in 2014, which saw 25 million cubic metres of waste wash into the Fraser River watershed, was one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian history.
To date, the company has not faced charges or paid any fines. A request for comment from Imperial Metals was not immediately returned.
Roughly 6,000 people have sent letters or emails to B.C.’s government and other entities opposing the mining permit, according to a release.
In addition to supporting fish and wildlife habitat, opponents say Skagit Watershed is critical to the local recreation economy as the mining threats are located in a “doughnut hole” of unprotected Crown land sandwiched between two provincial parks, which draw roughly a million visitors a year.
Proposed mining would threaten Indigenous land and title rights as well as natural and cultural resources, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, in the release. He is calling for the provincial government to deny the permit and uphold the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Recent reports and actions share a common goal: to urge the B.C. government — which they argue has an egregious mining track record — to address pollution with binding laws.
There’s “no end” to the tragic provincial stories and impacts, including on taxpayers funding the cleanup of several mines, said Calvin Sandborn, director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria.
B.C.’s mining laws are archaic, Sandborn said, adding that almost every aspect of the enforcement system is inadequate.
And the U.S. has long had more stringent regulations for selenium and other pollutants, he noted, pointing to a lack of transparent, appropriate data collection in Canada.
“Americans look at it and say, ‘Well, why is our salmon at risk, our birds dying, our fish deformed and the Canadians get away with much lesser rules?’” he said. “They’re paying the price downstream.”
Sandborn said the province needs to step up in several areas, including: prioritizing ecological safety over economic imperatives, creating tougher enforcement, shifting to a “polluter pay system” and improving environmental assessments of mines.
The province has developed a number of mechanisms to work closely with its transboundary neighbours, including a memorandum of understanding with Alaska, a monitoring task group with Montana and an integrated monitoring program with Washington, according to a spokesperson from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.
It is also looking for opportunities to build on its environmental assessments and will share reports on mine discharges, operations and closures, the emailed statement noted. In addition, the ministry recently announced a $20-million investment over the next three years to create a new mines authorization division independent of its enforcement division.
And its enforcement division will have more inspectors and “a new auditing function” to increase industry safety, the statement added.
Meanwhile, the Imperial Metals permit application is currently with a ministry “statutory decision maker” who will make a ruling after a review of submissions. The decision maker will have the “ability to take the time needed to adequately consider” the feedback.
First Nations consultation is ongoing, the spokesperson added.
Star Vancouver requested additional information on potential mining legislation reform and the B.C.-Montana pollution-limit process, but responses were not immediately available as they required input from additional ministries, according to the spokesperson.
“The relationship we have with our U.S. counterparts goes beyond a shared border. We have shared interests, ideals, goals and a shared environment,” the statement read. “We take the protection and preservation of our environment very seriously.”
With files from Ainslie Cruickshank
Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based reporter covering food, culture and policy. Follow her on Twitter: @mdgmedia
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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