By Sage Birchwater —
The Mount Polley Mine breach that sent 25 million tons of mine waste down nine kilometres of Hazeltine Creek and into Quesnel Lake last August 4, has garnered international attention.
On May 6,a 10-person delegation from Alaska, including Aboriginal leaders, non-governmental organization reps, and the State’s Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott, came to see the devastation of the mine breach first hand and speak to those affected by the catastrophe.
BC government approval for five large mines in the headwaters of the Taku, Stikine, and Unuk Rivers, set off alarm bells that the billion dollar Alaskan fishing industry and lucrative tourism interests could be threatened by lax British Columbia mining regulations.
When the Mount Polley breach occurred last August, these concerns went viral.
Heather Hardcastle, co-ordinator of Salmon Beyond Borders, said there is no mechanism for compensation if BC mines contaminate Alaskan rivers. “It’s not if, but when a breach will occur,” she warned. “Geotechnical experts have said when you use this technology of wet tailings, they are going to fail.”
The Mount Polley catastrophe was a big wake up call.”
Hardcastle said her group has been given no assurances from the BC government.
“It’s a sovereignty issue,” she says. “We’ve been treated like just another stakeholder, but we maintain we’re not just another stakeholder. We’re another country who shares these resources. We share the water; we share the salmon. We’ve not had a seat at the table to talk about how these watersheds are managed.”
The visitors were hosted by Jacinda Mack, who led the response to the Mount Polley breach for the Northern Secwepemc Tribal Council. In April, she went to a Salmon Beyond Borders event in Juneau, Alaska, and that’s where she met Lieutenant Governor Mallott, tribal leaders, and groups concerned with adverse effects of BC mining. They accepted her invitation to visit the Cariboo.
At a meeting with Tsilhqot’in chiefs in Williams Lake, Lieutenant Governor Mallott said his main concern is to ensure that the water quality of the rivers entering Alaska from British Columbia is maintained at a level that continues to sustain life in those rivers.
With those expansions a mine is soon outside of its original design plan…. That’s what happened at Mount Polley…. One guy described it as death by a thousand cuts. You lose the forest for the trees until it all comes crashing down.”
He said he would like Alaskan interests officially represented at the decision-making level with the BC government. “We want to advise and counsel to the degree that that is appropriate and doesn’t violate the sovereignty of your country,” he said.
Jennifer Hanlon, a Tlingit from Yakutat, explained that the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group is a coalition of 13 federally recognized tribes working to promote awareness of their concerns.
“We’re going to need the help of First Nations on this side of the border,” she told Tsilhqotìn leaders. “We’re here today to establish that connection.”
Tsi Deldel Chief Percy Guichon told the Alaskan delegation that salmon tie Aboriginal people together.
“Protecting salmon was the focus of our big fight against Taseko Mines Ltd. at Teztan Biny,” he said. “It’s the same salmon that go out from our country into the ocean and support the fishing industry where you live. The Mount Polley catastrophe was a big wake up call.”
Michael Hoyt, a Tlingit educator and clan leader from Wrangell, said one of the most powerful moments for him occurred at the Xatsull fishing site on the Fraser River with Jacinda Mack.
“This is where her ancestors have walked and fished for generation upon generation. I’ve been on similar land we have near Wrangle, and I know how powerful that is. The thought of that way of life being threatened is beyond heartbreak. Being able to see that connection is very moving.”
Jacinda Mack accompanied Lieutenant Governor Mallet and Heather Hardcastle on a helicopter flight to Mount Polley to view the cleanup effort and speak with company officials. Steve Robertson, vice-president of corporate affairs for Imperial Metals, the parent company for Mount Polley Mine Corporation (MPMC), met them there.
Mack says her bird’s-eye view of the rehabilitation work confirmed that the company has done a ton of work.
“Misinformation put out by some people that no work has been done just polarizes the issue and focuses on dissent rather than the solutions,” she says. “They’ve been working their butts off up there since the breach happened.”
Despite the herculean effort by MPMC to restore the integrity of Hazeltine Creek, one of the root causes for the breach hasn’t changed. There is too much water on the mine site.
The mine is located in the interior rainforest of British Columbia, where six million cubic metres of water accumulates annually on the mine footprint. The question remains: what level of treatment will this contaminated water receive before it is discharged into the environment?
Many people are worried that in the aftermath of the worst mining disaster in Canada’s history, the mine will continue polluting for perpetuity.
Lee Nikl, senior environmental scientist for Golder Associates, the company hired by MPMC to co-ordinate the rehabilitation work caused by the breach, says treating the mine effluent water so it is safe for drinking and aquatic life is difficult and expensive.
He says scientists are proposing to passively treat mine-contaminated water with lime to precipitate out some metals then pipe it directly to Quesnel Lake to dilute the remaining toxicity.
Hubert Bunce of the Ministry of Environment, says MPMC was issued a discharge permit in 2013 to annually release 1.4 million cubic metres of dam-filtered water into Hazeltine Creek between the months of April to October. In the fall of that year the company applied to discharge a further 3 million cubic metres of mine contact water into Polley Lake, treating it by reverse osmosis.
Mine discharges should meet drinking water and fish quality standards…. There is a higher level of scrutiny over what metals can be released into an aquatic ecosystem. We need to look at the sensitivity of the tiniest organisms within that ecosystem.”
That application was pending when the breach occurred. MPMC subsequently withdrew that application in favour of its current proposal to passively treat the water and pipe it directly into Quesnel Lake.
At Hazeltine Creek, Heather Hardcastle asked Steve Robertson whether the company required a discharge permit before the mine started operating. The answer was no.
Jacinda Mack says a fundamental problem in the mine permitting process in BC is that mines apply for discharge permits after they are up and running. She says mines start small then expand as new deposits are found and commodity prices are high.
“With those expansions a mine is soon outside of its original design plan,” she explains. “That’s what happened at Mount Polley. They had a closed circuit system where no discharges were permitted to enter into the environment for many years, but when they expanded the site, that plan no longer applied.”
She says these mine expansions happen in incremental phases.
“One guy described it as death by a thousand cuts. You lose the forest for the trees until it all comes crashing down.”
Mack says the mine permitting process is backwards. “The discharge permit should be the first thing you look at when a mine wants to start up. Mine planning and ecosystem management of a proposed mine should start by looking at the long-term effect of discharges into the environment, and if it meets environmental and local community standards, then engineer it backwards from there.”
So what assurances do the folks in Alaska have that BC mines in the headwaters of their salmon bearing streams won’t negatively impact the health of their billion dollar industry?
Under BC mining policy these mines may not initially be permitted to discharge effluent into the environment. But the question remains, what happens later once these mines become saturated with contaminated water and have nowhere to put it? Many fear a situation like Mount Polley where the only choice is between a major breach and a perpetual trickle of contamination.
Also up for discussion is whether there should be newer, tougher regulations forcing mining companies to treat mine effluent so that metals like copper, selenium, cadmium, lead, arsenic, and magnesium are not released into the receiving environment.
“Mine discharges should meet drinking water and fish quality standards,” Mack says. “There is a higher level of scrutiny over what metals can be released into an aquatic ecosystem. We need to look at the sensitivity of the tiniest organisms within that ecosystem.
“Salmon are so many levels above the support system beneath it. We are further up the food chain from salmon. It would be a huge hardship, but we can choose not to eat salmon. Other species don’t have that option.”
Sage Birchwater moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1973. He spends his time freelancing, authoring books, and with Caterina, hanging out with their dog and cat, gardening, and being part of the rich cultural life that is the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast.