All posts by Tadzio Richards

About Tadzio Richards

Tadzio Richards is the Canadian transboundary conservation campaigner for Rivers Without Borders. He grew up among the rivers and mountains of northwestern British Columbia and has a deep respect and love for the diverse landscapes and rich cultures of the region. He has been a political organizer, engaged in numerous conservation campaigns, and has documented environmental issues as an award-winning print and film journalist. With Rivers Without Borders, he works in collaboration with many others to help keep the transboundary watersheds wild and intact.

Mount Polley highlights risk of Red Chris, KSM tailings dam failures

Mount Polley highlights risk of Red Chris, KSM tailings dam failures

Mount Polley highlights risk of Red Chris, KSM tailings dam failures
Flannigan Slough, just downstream from proposed Tulsequah Chief Mine (Chris Miller)

By any measure, the giant tailings dam rupture at Imperial Metal’s Mount Polley Copper Mine is a disaster for downstream communities and wild salmon. The massive dam breach released a raging torrent of slurry mine waste into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake, prompting local emergency response officials to warn downstream residents not to drink, cook with, bathe in, or come into contact with the effluent.

To make matters worse, the complete failure of the tailings dam occurred just before the annual sockeye salmon run, endangering critical spawning grounds for more than one million sockeye in the Fraser River watershed.

Comparisons between the Mount Polley Mine and similar proposed mines in the transboundary watersheds of northwest BC and southeast Alaska are impossible to ignore.

Other mines threaten salmon habitat too

Dead fish found downstream from Mount Polley tailings pond breach (Chris Lyne)
Dead fish near Mount Polley breach (Chris Lyne)

Like Mount Polley, proposed transboundary mines such as Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) in the Nass and Unuk River watersheds, and Red Chris in the Iskut-Stikine watershed, would be open pit mines with tailings ponds at the headwaters of rivers that contain critical salmon habitat. These mines are in acid generating deposits and would create a larger threat of significant acid mine drainage pollution than at Mount Polley.

Given BC’s cavalier and eroded regulatory environment – which, according to a 2011 BC Auditor General’s report, includes a lack of adequate monitoring of certified mine projects – concerns are elevated that transboundary mines like KSM, Red Chris, and Tulsequah Chief in the Taku River watershed, could also suffer catastrophic dam failures or other serious incidents on a large scale. KSM alone would have a proposed tailings pond roughly six times larger than Mount Polley’s.

In the transboundary region – one of the last places in the world with pristine salmon habitat and intact predator-prey ecosystems – a spill would be devastating.

Red Chris scheduled to open in Sept, despite tailings pond flaws

Another dam failure could happen. The company that owns Mount Polley, Imperial Metals, is the same company behind the Red Chris mine, located near Iskut in northwest BC.  Red Chris would be an open pit gold and copper mine that, like Mount Polley, would use an earthen dam for their tailings pond at the headwaters of the Iskut River, the largest tributary of the transboundary Stikine River.

Red Chris Mine
Red Chris Mine under construction (Unuk River Post)

In 2013, a third party review was done of Imperial Metals’ engineering designs for their tailings pond at Red Chris. The independent review concluded there was no guarantee that Imperial Metal’s tailings pond would hold toxic wastewater from the mine. Despite this conclusion, construction at Red Chris has been allowed to continue, and the mine is currently scheduled to open in September of this year.

This is disturbing because of the many worrying comparisons between Mount Polley and Red Chris. At Mount Polley, in the years prior to the tailings dam breach, Imperial Metals ramped up daily production of ore from 18,000 tonnes per day in 2009 to more than 23,000 tonnes by 2014, with production escalating in the three months just prior to the breach. At the same time, the tailings dam walls were continuously built higher to deal with larger amounts of mine waste. “Dam building cannot continue indefinitely,” said a 2011 environmental consultant’s report, warning of structural instability in the dam if the growth pattern continued.

Kynoch envisions 5x permitted production at Red Chris

While Red Chris is permitted to produce 30,000 tonnes of ore per day, slightly larger than Mount Polley, Imperial Metals envisions that production at Red Chris could escalate at a much faster rate. In 2013, President Brian Kynoch conjured up a vision for potential shareholders of the Red Chris mine churning through 150,000 tonnes per day, a mine five times larger than the project for which they received an environmental certificate. At Red Chris, the same pattern of escalating growth that happened at Mount Polley could happen on a much bigger scale.

In response to the Mount Polley disaster, and serious concerns about downstream waters and fish habitat in the Iskut-Stikine watershed, the Klabona Keepers of the Tahltan Nation began a blockade of the Red Chris Mine on August 8.

Tailings dams experience 28% failure rate: US study

Oops! Mount Polley owner may not have environmental insurance
Mount Polley tailings spill (Cariboo Regional District)

Tailings dam failures are surprisingly common.One 2012 peer-reviewed study of currently operating copper mines in the U.S. found that 28% experienced partial or full tailings dam failure.

Because they contain heavy metals and toxic chemicals, tailings dams need to last forever to protect downstream communities. But in BC plans and funding are inadequate to cover access, maintenance, monitoring and cleanup of accidents whose effects linger essentially forever.

Clearly tailings dams fail, and not all the failures are the result of aging infrastructure. At Mount Polley, the tailings dam was built with modern technology and was only 14 years old.

Alaskan Senators raise alarm over BC’s regulation of mines

The Mount Polley tailings dam breach emphasizes the concerns that downstream communities, most vocally Alaskan tribes, commercial fishermen and tourism operators, and most recently Alaska’s two Senators, have raised about proposed BC mines. In the transboundary Unuk, Stikine and Taku River watersheds, proposed mines like KSM, Red Chris, and Tulsequah Chief all pose potential downstream risks to southeast Alaska’s $1 billion a year fishing industry, $1 billion a year tourism industry, and customary and traditional activities.

Grand daddy of them all: KSM Mine

The largest of these mines would be KSM,a massive copper, gold, and molybdenum mine at the headwaters of the Unuk and Nass rivers. With plans to extract 130,000 tons of ore per day for 52years, the proponent, Seabridge Gold, envisions that KSM would be one of the world’s largest open pit copper-gold mines in the world.

The Kerr deposit, part of proposed KSM Mine (Mike Fay)
The Kerr deposit, part of proposed KSM Mine (Mike Fay)

Mining at KSM would involve a high potential for water pollution and downstream habitat degradation. As proposed, at the mine site, just upstream from Alaska’s Misty Fjords National Monument, three open pits would be dug in steep rugged terrain that has some of BC’s highest levels of precipitation. One of the pits would be the deepest in the world.

At this site, massive amounts of water would need to be captured, treated and discharged during mine operation and after closure. Seabridge Gold proposes a system involving seven of the largest water treatment plants ever built, treating up to 118,000 gallons of contaminated water a minute.

KSM would also include twin 23 km tunnels, drilled through the mountains to link the mine site to an ore plant and an 8×2 km tailings pond. More than two billion tons of tailings waste would be stored just upstream from critical salmon habitat in the Nass watershed, BC’s third largest salmon system.  The proposed tailings pond would store 63 million cubic metres of tailings water, orders of magnitude more than the waste that spewed out from Mount Polley.

Nass, Unuk River salmon at risk

A spill at the KSM tailings pond or mine site water containment areas could damage downstream salmon habitat for years. Even under normal operation, concerns about KSM are heightened because 71% of the total waste rock at the site is known to be acid generating (much higher than at Mount Polley). Toxic levels of selenium are also a known issue, and proposed treatment systems to remove selenium from wastewater are unproven at the scale proposed by Seabridge.


Salmon and trout exposed to the metal contaminants the company proposes to release into the Unuk from KSM under normal operation have shown habitat avoidance, impaired olfaction, migratory disruption, impaired anti-predator response, reduced growth and swim speed, increased stress, impaired reproduction, and death.

Despite these and other concerns about KSM, in July 2014, KSM received an Environmental Assessment Certificate from the BC government and now awaits federal approval from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA).

Before Mount Polley, Feds unworried about KSM dam failure

In July, CEAA did not appear worried. “A catastrophic dam failure,” wrote the authors of CEAA’s Comprehensive Study Review of KSM, “would likely have high magnitude downstream residual impacts on fish, fish habitat and water quality.” However, said the federal regulator, the likelihood of such a dam failure, “is considered unlikely.”

Just days after that report’s release, the Mount Polley tailings dam blew out and a torrent of mine waste contaminated downstream water bodies and critical salmon habitat. The disaster was both a tailings dam failure and a failure of regulatory oversight. It needs to be cleaned up. And it can’t be allowed to happen again.

CEAA taking public comment on KSM until Aug. 20

The final CEAA public comment period on KSM is now open, and comments on the proposed mine should be sent to CEAA by August 20. Instead of rubberstamping KSM, the Federal Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq, has an opportunity to reject the mine, or to step back and call for a Panel Review, which would allow for more public participation, and more time to assess this risky mine.

Heavy Metals, Acid Mine Drainage a Threat to Pacific Salmon Watersheds

Heavy Metals, Acid Mine Drainage a Threat to Pacific Salmon Watersheds


Heavy Metals, Acid Mine Drainage a Threat to Pacific Salmon Watersheds

Heavy metals and sulfuric acid, otherwise known as battery acid, or acid mine drainage, are toxic for wild salmon. That should be obvious, but after Bill C-38 – the federal budget implementation bill which “streamlined” environmental assessments, gutted environmental protection agencies, and virtually eliminated local spill response capabilities – the future of British Columbia’s best remaining salmon rivers and watersheds is uncertain. The possibility of mine pollution leaching into fish habitat and spawning grounds is a real and long-term threat. In fact, it’s already happening. For a glimpse of the future of Pacific salmon watersheds, you may need to look no further than the sordid case of Chieftain Metals and the Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku River watershed in northwestern BC.

The Taku River flows from BC into Alaska and is the largest totally intact watershed on the Pacific coast of North America. It also contains an old mine site, the Tulsequah Chief, which was abandoned in the 1950’s. For over half a century the mine has slowly leaked contaminated water into the best spawning grounds on the highly productive Taku River.

Recent attempts to re-develop the mine – first by Redfern (which went bankrupt in 2009), then by Chieftain Metals (a company co-founded by the former CEO of Redfern) – brought the promise of cleaning up the site. Sadly, it was a false promise. On June 6, 2012, Chieftain Metals announced its intent to close the Interim Water Treatment Plant installed at the Tulsequah Chief site in November 2011 to address chronic acid mine drainage and heavy metals pollution. The company will now be violating its discharge permit, and contaminants will again seep into the river.

What happens now is anyone’s guess. At this time, Chieftain can’t afford to run the water treatment plant. The mine proposal, including a 122 km road through the currently roadless watershed, is fraught with financial and logistical problems and a dwindling social license from the residents of Atlin and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation.

Now is the time for the governments of BC and Canada to step in. If both governments choose to look the other way on the noncompliance by Chieftain Metals, it will show that neither government has any real interest in salmon habitat and fisheries conservation issues.

The stakes are high. The situation facing the Taku River may be a future scenario for the transboundary region as a whole. Along with the Taku River, the Stikine, Iskut and Unuk Rivers support robust populations of all five North American species of Pacific salmon, which sustain commercial, sport, and subsistence fisheries in both BC and Alaska. All of these latter three rivers are threatened by proposed mining projects that dwarf the Tulsequah Chief by several orders of magnitude.

BC Hydro’s Northwest Transmission Line (NTL), a 287 kV power line running 344 km north from Terrace to Bob Quinn on Highway 37 near the Iskut River, is currently under construction in the transboundary region. Billed as a “gateway” project to further industrial development, the power line could lead to the construction of up to 11 new mines.

Most all of these proposed mines, such as Red Chris, Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell, and Schaft Creek, are huge open pit copper and gold mines that would leave behind millions of tons of waste rock that would need to be treated for acid mine drainage for centuries to come.

Ingesting even minute amounts of copper makes salmon more susceptible to predation. Ingesting sulfuric acid – created when the mining process exposes sulfide minerals to water and air – is acutely toxic for salmon. In a region that has heavy snows, frequent avalanches and seismic activity, the potential for an industrial accident is high. This poses an unacceptable risk to internationally significant salmon habitat.

In the post-Bill C-38 Canada, our nation’s environmental protections have been greatly weakened. But as renowned Canadian scientist Dr. David Schindler has said, “All species, including humans, require functioning ecosystems based on healthy habitats. It is the explicit role of government to find the balance between protecting this habitat and encouraging sustainable economic growth – not to pit them against one another.”

The transboundary region is a place where government can still try and get it right.  They can start by stepping up and forcing a cleanup of the Tulsequah Chief mine site. Failure to do so would send a signal that both federal and provincial governments have chosen to abdicate their responsibility to protect our environment, and that pollution risks to Pacific salmon watersheds will likely continue to grow.

Tadzio Richards is the Canadian Transboundary Conservation Campaigner for Rivers Without Borders