B.C.’s ‘dirty secret’:

more than 100 contaminated mine sites threaten water, wildlife and communities

 
Updated Feb. 6, 2021, at 8:40 a.m.: this story was updated to clarify that the Bell and Granisle mines have been polluting Babine Lake  since they were operational.
 
Decades after closing, an open-pit copper mine in northwest B.C. is still  discharging wastewater with metal concentrations 250 times higher than  what’s considered safe for salmon into Babine Lake, the sockeye salmon  engine of the Skeena River watershed, according to a new report by SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and Lake Babine Nation. And the  situation at the Granisle mine — one of two decommissioned mines on the  lake — is indicative of what’s happening across the province. 
 
“People  are particularly concerned about the health of the lake because of its  importance for sockeye salmon production in the watershed,” Adrienne  Berchtold, co-author of the report, told The Narwhal.
 
Babine Lake, the longest natural lake in the province, is an important nursery  habitat for 30 populations of sockeye salmon. About 90 per cent of all  sockeye salmon in the Skeena watershed start their lives there. The  Skeena sockeye population has declined about 70 per cent over the past 100 years, according to Simon Fraser University researcher Michael Price. 
 
Two decommissioned mines owned by Glencore Canada — Granisle and Bell — have  been discharging wastewater contaminated with metals into the north end  of Babine Lake since they were operational. Granisle operated from 1966  to 1982 and Bell from 1972 to 1992.  
 
The  release of mining contaminants has negatively affected water, sediment  and fish, according to the report. For instance, bottom-dwelling fish  have persistently elevated levels of copper in their bodies, which  affect their ability to smell — a sense they rely on to find food and  avoid predators. The situation has worsened in recent years and the most  polluted fish are always found closest to the mines.
 
Despite the worsening situation, B.C. permits the Bell mine to discharge  wastewater with metal concentrations up to 25 times higher than  provincial water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life  into the lake. The province has no guidelines for Granisle, which  discharges untreated wastewater into the lake at three sites. At one of  these sites, the discharge has copper concentrations that are on average  20 times higher than the provincial guidelines for the protection of  aquatic life and nearly 250 times higher than the threshold for negative  effects on salmon, according to the report. 
 
The  province only requires Glencore Canada to do very sporadic monitoring of  Babine Lake water, sediment and fish. Such monitoring is only required  once every 10 years at one Bell discharge site and isn’t required at all  at some Granisle sites. Sockeye salmon by both mines aren’t monitored. 
 
“We’re in dire straits,” Lake Babine Nation fisheries manager Donna MacIntyre told  The Narwhal. “Our wild salmon populations are in the red zone … and  [salmon are] the backbone of our culture. These fish are so important to  us and basically we’re not monitoring their health.”
 
The  Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy was unable to  provide an interview but told The Narwhal in an emailed statement it  works with the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation and  the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office to manage long-term risks  associated with closed mines. 
 
The ministry also said it received the report and is committed to addressing the identified issues.
 
B.C. home to more than 100 known or potentially contaminated mine sites
The Bell and Granisle mines are emblematic of a much bigger problem in B.C. According to a map recently published by SkeenaWild and the BC Mining Law Reform Network, there are 116 known or potentially contaminated mine sites that threaten water, wildlife and communities across the province. 
 
“Our  research shows that there’s contaminated mine sites littered across the  province,” Greg Knox, executive director at SkeenaWild, told The Narwhal  in an interview. 
 
The map  shows 173 coal and metal mines, both active and inactive, and includes  all of B.C.’s major mines as well as historical mines with high levels  of production. The information is based on data from the province,  mining companies, regulatory bodies and other sources. The authors said  information on the contamination risk of 55 mines sites was not  available, but noted “many seem likely to have some contamination  concern, given their location and deposit geology.” 
 
Acid rock drainage — in which heavy metals and sulfuric acid leach into the water,  threatening the ecosystem — is a concern at 71 sites, many of which are  likely to encounter water contamination issues even if mitigation  efforts are undertaken. The Bell and Granisle mines illustrate that even  with water treatment, mine discharges still contain a cocktail of  contaminants.
 
Of the 173 sites on the map, only two have been shown to pose no immediate threat of water contamination. 
 
The map report illustrates the effects of mine pollution by highlighting the situation at several infamous B.C. sites — Tulsequah Chief, Mount Polley, Teck’s coal mines in the Elk Valley and Copper Mountain — all of which have caused significant water pollution. 
 
For instance, the Tulsequah Chief mine has been leaking acid rock drainage into the Taku watershed near the  B.C.-Alaska border for more than 60 years and cleanup efforts have been  delayed by bureaucracy and the former owner’s receivership proceedings. 
 
Similarly, the Mount Polley mine continues to release wastewater with little or no treatment into Quesnel Lake six and a half years after the  tailings pond collapsed, spilling 24 million cubic metres of waste into  a creek and the lake, a source of drinking water and a major spawning  ground for sockeye salmon. The waste is laden with contaminants up to  800 times higher than the lake’s natural background levels, according to  the map report.
 
Knox said it’s in the best interest of the province to address this problem and start taking action to reduce the pollution.
 
“We always  see the government promoting the industry and touting how clean it is  and how well-positioned we are to sell our minerals as clean and  responsibly sourced when in fact they have this massive contaminated  mine site problem across the province,” he said. “B.C. has a dirty  secret, but they don’t want the world to find out about it because it’ll  put their whole sales pitch at risk.”
 
Nikki Skuce, co-chair of the BC Mining Law Reform Network, agreed.
 
“At the  very least we should have public transparency where the problems even  are,” she said in an interview. “It’s hard to prioritize sites for  cleanup if you don’t know what the problems are.”
 
Knox said there’s a clear need to at minimum prioritize any known or potential pollution from sites near salmon habitat.
 
“[Babine  Lake] is Canada’s largest sockeye-producing system and if the province  can’t even do its due diligence here, then what are they doing across  the rest of the province?”
 
Inspection of closed and abandoned mines is only required ‘from time to time’
Following the Mount Polley disaster, B.C.’s auditor general produced a damning report about the province’s lack of sufficient regulations in the mining sector.  
 
While the  province has addressed some of the recommendations in the report,  including launching a collaborative compliance and enforcement division,  there are still significant gaps in how the province manages monitoring  and pollution at old mine sites. 
 
B.C.  requires mining companies to create reclamation plans, which include  aquatic monitoring, and have them approved by the government. But the  scope and frequency of aquatic monitoring is largely left to the mining  companies’ discretion, according to Berchtold. 
 
In some  cases, like at the Babine Lake mines, aquatic monitoring programs do not  include sampling water, sediment and fish in all potentially impacted  areas, nor do they include sampling all potentially impacted species  like plankton and aquatic plant life, according to the map report. The  Bell and Granisle monitoring plans also don’t include taking sufficient  “clean” samples from other parts of the lake to provide baseline  data.    
 
“We don’t  have the right rules, guidelines, policies or regulations in place to  ensure regular, adequate monitoring and guidelines for what reclamation  actually looks like,” Skuce said.
 
Berchtold  agreed and said the province gives mining companies a long leash when it  comes to long-term maintenance of a closed mine site.
 
“The  government doesn’t necessarily take enough of a stance on what  monitoring should look like,” she said. “They defer to the professionals  that are hired by the company and obviously the company has an interest  to not look too heavily into whether they’re causing negative impacts  because they don’t want to deal with the cleanup costs and the negative  publicity that might come with that.”
 
Companies are also required to submit annual reports to ensure they are in  compliance with provincial regulations and the government periodically  inspects sites. However, as Skuce said, “the  standards for … government inspection are very vague. The policy  guidelines regarding old mines is that they should be inspected ‘from  time to time.’ What does that mean? Who’s getting to decide?” 
 
The province also allows pollution, like the discharge of elevated levels of copper, at old mine sites. 
 
While the  permits regulating waste discharge at the Bell mine set limits on  contaminants like copper and zinc, they don’t regulate other  contaminants like aluminum, cadmium and selenium. The province also  allows for unregulated discharges at the Granisle mine and hasn’t set  any limits on the amount of contaminants in the untreated discharge  entering the lake. 
 
Not only  that, the fees stipulated under B.C.’s Environmental Management Act for  this pollution are insufficient, Berchtold said.
 
The cost to Glencore for putting all this copper into the lake is a paltry $330.62 per tonne.  And for sulphates, which Berchtold said are in some cases being  discharged at 650 times above the lake’s natural background levels, the  company only has to pay $4.85 per tonne. 
 
“It’s  obviously not enough,” said Berchtold, explaining that a mining company  taking care of a closed, unprofitable mine needs more incentive than the  loss of a few hundred bucks to invest in costly improvements to its  water treatment facilities.
 
Berchtold said she’s troubled by a lack of government action based on what companies are reporting.
 
“[Glencore  Canada] say flat out there are elevated levels of this such-and-such  metal in the sediment and in the fish tissue, but I haven’t seen any  evidence that anyone within the Ministry of Environment is actually  reviewing these reports, looking at the data that’s been collected and  addressing the fact that there are impacts occurring.”
 
As the  mining map report illustrated, the nature and scale of contamination at  many closed and abandoned mine sites is unknown and provincial  regulations around gathering data allow potential pollution to continue  indefinitely.  
 
Knox said  their work on the Bell and Granisle mines is just the start. “We’re  going to continue our work to investigate individual mines to see if  they have adequate monitoring and pollution problems.”
 
Report recommends strict guidelines on contaminants, enhanced monitoring
The Babine  Lake report included a series of recommendations to address the  problems at the mines, some of which can be implemented at mines across  the province.  
 
It said  the province should require permits for all discharges of treated and  untreated wastewater, including the unregulated discharges from the  Granisle mine. It recommended B.C. establish clear thresholds for the  levels of contaminants that will negatively impact species based on the  best available science and present a clear plan for what happens if  those thresholds are exceeded. It also pointed out that aquatic  monitoring programs should include all areas that are potentially  impacted, and companies should sample water, sediment and fish tissue  from elsewhere in the lake for comparison.
 
The report  also recommended the province require companies to monitor the effects  of the mine discharges on other parts of the aquatic ecosystem such as  plankton, the main food source for juvenile sockeye. 
 
Importantly, it said salmon should be included in monitoring programs. 
 
MacIntyre said this is a priority.
 
“If we’re  not looking at these little babies in our nursery lake, looking at their  health and the effects of all of this mine discharge, by the time we  figure anything out, it’s going to be too late,” she said. “I think that  we could start now — and maybe we’ll have a bit of a hope.”
 
Berchtold  said the first step is to find out if the fish are using the area around  the mine sites. If sockeye do congregate in the areas where the mines  are discharging effluent, she said catching the fish to take samples and  then releasing them would be a simple and effective way to determine if  the water quality is impacting the salmon’s ability to navigate. 
 
In an emailed statement to The Narwhal, Glencore Canada argued that because  sockeye migrate out of the lake and spend most of their lives in the  ocean, it’s impossible to evaluate the potential impacts of the mines’  discharges on them, but it said it will consider the report’s  recommendations when reviewing its aquatic monitoring program. 
 
“In the  future, Glencore would be happy to report on any non-lethal information  for sockeye salmon smolt that may be caught as part of our aquatic  monitoring program,” the statement said. 
 
While  these recommendations would strengthen environmental protection at old  mine sites, they don’t address the fact that the company is still in  charge of assessing its own impacts, which, as Berchtold pointed out, is  a conflict of interest. 
 
Other organizations also have ideas of how to address the problem. 
 
A 2019 report from the BC Mining Law Reform Network made 69 detailed recommendations  to the province to better protect the public and the environment from  mines. Those recommendations include expanding civil liability for  companies to ensure they pay for pollution, mandating clear risk-based  inspection policies for all mines including closed and abandoned sites  and requiring independent analyses of water treatment systems that take  into account the full long-term costs of a mine’s lifecycle.
 
In July, the First Nations Energy and Mining Council and the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre released a report calling on the province to support an Indigenous guardians network,  which would provide First Nations across the province the training and  resources needed to monitor resource-based activity on their  territories.
 
That  monitoring would include Indigenous guidance on activities like mine  closure, reclamation, monitoring and waste management. 
 
MacIntyre welcomed the idea.
 
“We’re the caretakers of the land. We’re the stewards of Babine Lake.” 
 
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