Forget reality TV, placer mining a disaster

Next time you watchGold RushorYukon Gold,look past the drama and focus on the massive damage caused: creeks polluted, trees bulldozed, fish populations hurt, hillsides scraped away. Then ask yourself - is all that destruction and pollution worth the few hundred, or few dozen, ounces of gold produced.

And forget about the Yukon or Alaska.

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Right here in British Columbia, placer mining - the practice of mining for gold in and near streams and riverbeds - is a huge, destructive problem and has been for more that 150 years.

It is out of sight of the big population centres and often downplayed or ignored by the government and media.

But it is a major crisis for First Nations.

Our lands are covered with too many claims for us to count and too many mines to monitor. We live with the piecemeal destruction of lands and waters and see the impact on the water and fish upon which we depend.

We knew it was bad, which is why B.C.'s First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM) ask the Fair Mining Collaborative (FMC) to review the state of placer mining in BC.

Yet even we were shocked by the extent of the problem.

The results of FMC's deep dive into government records and other data revealed the situation was far worse than we had feared. There were 542 placer mines with active work permits in 2015 and another 2,917 placer claims reporting work. Many thousands more have been worked and abandoned since the 1850s.

Samples taken downstream of placer mines have found arsenic, cadmium and other cancer-causing minerals that exceed drinking water guidelines. To compound matters, historic placer mining has likely left a legacy of mercury contamination, which may risk human health when disturbed by current mining activity.

Despite this, government data shows most placer mine sites are never inspected and riparian setbacks and fish habitat protection laws are not enforced by Ministries, and ignored by some placer miners.

One of the most affected regions is the Fraser River Watershed, the lifeblood of so many First Nations.

It is also crucial to British Columbians - 2.7 million people and 80 percent of BC's economic activity depend on it in some way, and the Fraser itself is one of the world's most productive salmon rivers.

Government data shows 1,399 mine sites have been established since 1980 on this watershed, and 4,019 Notice of Work permits issued. No fewer than 300 placer mines have held a permit to operate there since 2014. There is also significant smaller-scale hand mining activity. In 2015, almost 3,000 such claims reported work in BC, and the Fraser watershed is a key area for such operations.

Yet no records were found of a single environmental assessment - ever - involving any of these mines.

There is, however, a 2010 Ministry of Environment audit of placer mines that found 50 per cent of mines that were expected broke the law and either worked directly in streams, or discharged tailings into them.

The Fraser Watershed is also covered with old and forgotten mines dating back to the first big gold rush, many of which were never reclaimed and could still be polluting the watershed. We do not know how bad the total accumulative impacts are, but historical records show placer mining added 110 million tonnes of tailings to the Fraser's natural sediment load from 1858-1909.

That is seven times the amount from the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster and does not factor in the impacts from the last 108 years of mining.

You might think placer mining must generate huge revenues if it is allowed to pose such threats to this vital watershed.

Nothing could be further from the truth. BC Gold Commissioner statistics for 2015 show placer mining earned B.C. a paltry $64.945 in royalties in 2015 - not even enough to cover the cost of one mine inspector. The same data showed 2015 gold revenues from this industry of less than

$13 million.

There simply is no economic, environmental or moral justification for allowing this to continue.

Placer mining is a blight on the face of beautiful British Columbia. It is a direct threat to the survival of First Nations and a huge negative for everyone except the lucky few miners who make a profit.

The Yukon and Alaska have stringent environmental assessment processes and compliance oversight, including full reclamation of harmed lands.

B.C. needs to do at least as well.

We need a moratorium on all new claims staking and work permits until and unless new laws, regulations and enforcements can be designed - in full partnership with First Nations - that would justify allowing placer mining to resume.

-- Bev Sellars and Amy Crook

Former Xat'sull First Nation chief Bev Sellars is chair of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining.Amy Crook is executive director of the Fair Mining Collaborative.

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