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B.C.'s 'dirty dozen' mines called out in new report

As Canada aims to ramp up extraction of critical minerals, a new report calls out several B.C. mines for their environmental records and risky operations.
An aerial view of Teck Resources Elkview Mine in the east Kootenays. Selenium pollution from 120 years of mining has left a legacy of impacts. HANDOUT

A coal mine run by Teck Resources Ltd. — the same company whose board former premier John Horgan joined this year — tops the list of nearly a dozen mining projects called out for their risky operations or environmental records.

The report from BC Mining Law Reform, titled Dirty Dozen 2023: B.C.’s top polluting and risky mines, called out 11 mines and the province’s free-entry mining system as standing in the way of a responsible mining industry in the province.

Evidence in the report includes a 2022 peer-reviewed study that found more than 40 per cent of the amendments B.C. mines requested under the the province's environmental assessment process were approved even though they were “likely to have negative impacts on” effluent discharge, lead to the extraction of more water, or degrade fish habitat.

“We’re talking about a systematic problem,” said Nikki Skuce, co-chair of the BC Mining Law Reform Network.

“Industry and the government have a culture of believing that we have the best environmental standards when it comes to mining. But that’s just themselves proclaiming.”

Michael Goehring, president and CEO of the Mining Association of British Columbia, pushed back on the group's findings, saying they contain “inaccuracies and misleading and selective information” that fail to offer “a balanced and unbiased perspective on B.C.’s mining industry.”

“B.C.’s mines adhere to some of the toughest regulatory standards globally when it comes to environmental assessment, operational permitting, compliance and enforcement, and post-closure monitoring and reclamation,” he said in a statement to Glacier Media.

Goehring added the province has made “substantial reforms to mining laws in recent years,” improved regulations around health, safety and mine reclamation, and updated guidelines around water quality and mine tailings storage facilities.

One of North America's 'most serious pollution problems'

The first on its list, Teck’s Elk Valley Coal mine sits a few kilometres east of Fernie. The open-pit mine, which produces coal used in the production of steel and is in the process of being spun off as a separate entity, is described in the report as “one of the most serious pollution problems in North America.”

Since the mid-1990s, the mine has repeatedly released selenium into nearby rivers, contaminating it for people and fish. The report points to a recently released provincial water quality hub, which indicates the mine's water quality limits have faced multiple cases of non-compliance.

Between 2015 and 2022, 55 inspections led to 19 warnings and 13 referrals for administrative penalties, including a nearly $16-million fine issued earlier this year.

The province is still actively investigating referrals for another six administrative penalties.

“Teck has definitely been polluting the longest and the most,” Skuce said.

“Maybe those penalties need to be higher.”

Tailings ponds put environment and at least 3,000 lives at risk, says group

The report also lists the Gibraltar copper and molybdenum mine, North America’s fourth largest open-pit mine, as among several mines in the province with tailings ponds that would lead to “extreme” consequences if they failed.

A 2022 report conducted by international mining expert Steven Emerman on behalf of BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild Conservation Trust found nearly half of B.C.’s existing mine sites with tailings storage facilities are likely to have high, very high, or extreme consequences in the event of dam failure. 

Emerman said that puts a minimum of 3,000 lives at risk over the coming decades — largely because, in addition to the 172 tailings dams already built in B.C., a mining boom means new dams are getting bigger and taller, rivalling some of the largest in the world.  

“We're moving into a very scary future where tailings dams are getting riskier and riskier,” he said at the time.

Tailings dams indefinitely store vast pools of waste left over from mining. They contain toxic heavy metals like selenium, and other toxins such as arsenic and cyanide. 

In B.C., public data suggests there are about 2.5 million cubic metres of such liquid mine waste held back from pouring into watersheds and impacting communities. It’s a volume of waste that could fill BC Place stadium 943 times. 

Other mines on the group’s “dirty dozen” list include Copper Mountain near Princeton, which has discharged wastewater directly to the Similkameen River, damaging fish habitat, and the Quintette coal mine in B.C.’s Peace region, where cleanup and reclamation are on pause 23 years after it was shut.

And then there's Mount Polley, an open-pit gold and copper mine north of Williams Lake where the 2014 failure of a tailings dam led to the release of 25 billion litres of contaminated water in the largest environmental disaster of its kind in Canadian history.

Skuce, who co-authored the latest report, said the B.C. government has made a number of positive steps over the past year, including publishing projected mining reclamation costs expected to fall to the province.

But she says big gaps remain. Many of the recommendations made after the Mount Polley disaster have yet to been enacted, and Skuce says there is still no industry pooled fund set up to respond if such disaster happens again.

'Free miner's certificate' circumvents Indigenous consent, says report

The final target on the group’s list is not a hole in the ground, but B.C.’s free-entry system that allows companies to stake claims without consulting First Nations. A “free miner’s certificate” can be obtained for $25 for an individual and $500 for a corporation.

“With this certificate, a miner can go online to stake an area of interest for $1.75 per hectare, granting them the right of free entry to explore for minerals in more than 76% of the province without permission or consent from Indigenous nations, private landowners or municipalities,” the report says.

The report points to ongoing litigation filed by the Gitxaała and Ehattesaht First Nations as they challenge more than 30 mining claims in their territory.

In his statement, Goehring said B.C.'s mining industry has a “strong track record” in promoting economic reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and that the group supports the modernization of the Mineral Tenure Act, which governs the free-entry system.

The report comes as the federal governments looks to promote its critical minerals strategy, meant to jump-start mining of key ingredients needed in batteries.

“There’s increasing pressure to mine more as we move to transition to a low-carbon future. I think B.C. still has risks and shortcomings,” Skuce said.

“There are solutions and reforms that need to happen.”