Category Archives: Metals and Minerals

Liberal govt hubris handed Tsilhqot'in First Nation bigger legal victory

Liberal govt hubris handed Tsilhqot’in Nation bigger legal victory

Liberal govt hubris handed Tsilhqot'in First Nation bigger legal victory
The statue ‘Ivstitia’ (Justice) guards the entrance of the Supreme Court of Canada (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The BC Liberal Government just couldn’t leave well enough alone. In choosing to appeal the Tsilhqot’in First Nation’s BC Supreme Court victory over land title and rights, the government set in motion a chain of events that could have profound consequences for its future resource development plans.

The Tsilhqot’in won a landmark legal victory affirming title and rights over 200,000 hectares of their traditional territory, west of Williams Lake, at the BC Supreme Court in 2007 (with limited rights to an even larger area). The 17-year case was the longest and arguably most important in the provincial court’s history. But at the lowest level of the courts, its ramifications remained unclear – especially as they applied to other territories.

Then, the BC government decided to challenge the ruling – initially winning a small victory in 2012 at the Court of Appeal, which undermined key aspects of the lower court’s decision. But the move would ultimately backfire.

BC government its own worst enemy

Like other seminal aboriginal rights cases such as Haida and Delgamuukw before it, in choosing to appeal the Tsilhqot’in case, the province ultimately made matters much worse for itself by entrenching the substance of the lower-court decision in the highest judicial precedent of the land, when the Supreme Court of Canada handed down its verdict this week. The SCC’s decision maintained the nation’s title and rights to 170,000 square hectares – essentially affirming the BC Supreme Court’s original ruling.

The choice of the Liberal government to roll the dice with the higher courts was likely motivated by two factors: 1) Its fixation on the proposed Prosperity Mine at Fish Lake, in Tsilhqot’in territory; and 2) Concerns over the broader implications for its resource development program throughout province if the BC court decision stood.

By proceeding with the challenge, the government failed spectacularly on both accounts.

The Fish Lake that got away

The province’s unrelenting support for Taseko Mines’ Prosperity project saw it clash with the Harper Government on several occasions. It rubber stamped the mine’s first iteration, only to watch federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice shoot it down after the panel reviewing it identified serious environmental and First Nations issues.

Then, the Liberal government stirred up a hornet’s nest when it issued exploratory permits to the company. The First Nation balked, evicting contractors from the territory. After Taseko obtained an injunction against the nation, the Tsilhqot’in got it overturned.


While all this legal wrangling over the mine was going on, the province was appealing the separate-but-related BC Supreme Court decision on the nation’s title and rights.

When the company submitted a new proposal for the mine in 2013, it too was rejected in February of this year. The company, still unwilling to take “no” for an answer, is now seeking a judicial review of the second rejection – but this week’s SCC decision surely must represent the final, final nail in the coffin for Taseko’s ill-fated mine.

What does ruling mean for Enbridge, other projects?

The SCC ruling’s impact on other contentious resource projects, like the proposed Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines, remains to be seen. “Just because the Supreme Court of Canada has issued this claim doesn’t mean that the government is going to start giving all the land back to the aboriginal people,” says Garth Walbridge, a Métis lawyer.

[quote]But it could have a serious economic impact. The size of the boulder that Enbridge is rolling up the hill to get their pipeline built just got much bigger today, because the First Nations in that part of the country now have much much bigger say in whether or not Enbridge can go ahead.[/quote]

In pushing the case to the Supreme Court of Canada – and losing, big time – the BC Liberal government has ensured that these questions will be central to all resource development in the province going forward.

November 2011 injunction case over Prosperity Mine

Ajax Mine video featuring TRU dean unearths conflict

Ajax Mine video featuring TRU dean unearths conflict

Lindsay Langill, dean of trades and technology at Thompson Rivers University (Photo: Ajax Project Youtube).
TRU’s dean of trades and technology is featured in an Ajax mine video (Youtube: Ajax Project )

The latest chapter in the controversial Ajax mine proposal planned for the edge of Kamloops, BC was released as a sleek corporate video titled “The Conversation” by mining company, KGHM International. “The Conversation” featured Lindsay Langill, the dean of trades and technology at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), where he publicly expressed his support for the Ajax mine project.

After the video was released earlier this month, TRU received many complaints about Langill’s statement in the video.   Discussing the benefits Ajax would provide for his trades students, Langill said :

[quote]If we step back and look at what can be gained by a project such as Ajax, I think that there are many, many opportunities that open themselves up. So we can tell our students, take your training with us, stay in Kamloops, British Columbia and make a difference within the community.[/quote]

The University’s Vice-President Advancement, Christopher Seguin, responded to the complaints about Langill’s appearance in third-party corporate marketing material, telling Kamloops this Week:

[quote]Participation of the school’s dean of trades and technology in a pro-Ajax mine video does not mean Thompson Rivers University is supporting the proposed project.[/quote]

The university may want to maintain a neutral stance on the Ajax mine proposal, but Langill voluntarily allowed himself to be identified as a TRU faculty member, which reflects upon the institution.

The video highlights the job openings Ajax mine would create, its care for the surrounding environment and its neighbourhood approach to the city of Kamloops residents.

Ajax Project – an open-pit copper-gold mine at the historic Ajax-Afton mine site that finished operation in 1997 – is being developed by KGHM International, a wholly-owned subsidiary of KGHM Polska Miedź S.A., a Polish company of which the Polish government owns 80 percent of its shares.

Earlier this month, KGHM announced a new target of March, 2015 for filing its formal application. The delay comes as concern over the environmental footprint of the mine that would be located on the border of Kamloops’ city limits prompted the company to modify its design.

Although this plan hasn’t been publicly unveiled by the company, external-affairs manager Yves Lacasse said the redesign will allow the mine’s infrastructure to move south, away from the city.

After barring users from embedding the video elsewhere, the company took down the original video earlier this week. It was then reposted yesterday.

Taseko appeals Prosperity Mine rejection...again

Taseko appeals Prosperity Mine rejection…again

Taseko appeals Prosperity Mine rejection...again
The location of Taseko’s proposed New Prosperity Mine, west of Williams Lake

VANCOUVER – The company behind a proposed B.C. gold and copper mine that was rejected twice by the federal government is asking the Federal Court to quash the environment minister’s decision.

Taseko Mines Ltd. (TSX:TKO) says it’s filing a second application for judicial review of the decision against the New Prosperity mine, which is proposed near Williams Lake, B.C.

Taseko’s Brian Battison says the federal environmental review process was unfair and led Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq to make the wrong decision when she said no to the mine.

Court documents to be filed in Federal Court claim changes made by the government to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act two years ago are unconstitutional, because they go well beyond weighing the environmental impact of a project.

The B.C. government has approved the proposal, but Ottawa first rejected the proposed $1.5-billion mine in 2010, because the plan involved draining a lake of significance to local First Nations for use as a tailings pond.

The company says the revised plan will save the lake, but the environmental assessment found it would still cause significant adverse affects and cabinet rejected the proposal again last month.

No prosperity for Taseko-Harper govt rejects BC mine

No prosperity for Taseko: Harper govt rejects BC mine

No prosperity for Taseko-Harper govt rejects BC mine
The location of Taseko’s proposed New Prosperity Mine, west of Williams Lake

After three years, several court cases, two project designs and as many federal reviews, the Harper government has rejected Taseko Mines’ controversial Properity Mine proposal for BC.

A statement issued earlier today on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s website noted that Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq “has concluded that the New Prosperity Mine project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects that cannot be mitigated.”

[quote]The Governor in Council has determined that those effects are not justified in the circumstances; therefore, the project may not proceed. [/quote]

Mine gets second life after Prentice’s rejection

The original Prosperity Mine proposal, which would have involved draining Fish Lake in Tsilhqot’in First Nation territory, west of Williams Lake, was rejected by then-Environment Minister Jim Prentice in 2010.

The company submitted a revised proposal in 2012, which First Nations leaders concluded still posed a significant threat to local watercourses, fish, and their traditional way of life.

The debate over the mine reached a fever pitch in 2013, when Taseko’s president publicly attacked Tsilhqot’in resistance to the mine.

“A recent op-ed by the President of Taseko Mines Ltd., Russ Hallbauer, argues that the overwhelming First Nations’ opposition to its controversial New Prosperity mine proposal is the result of ‘misinformed testimony by special interests’,” wrote Chief Roger William in a strongly-worded rebuttal.

[quote]This position is insulting, inaccurate and yet another example of the company’s refusal to hear the voices of our people or acknowledge the very real impacts this mine would have for our communities and our Tsilhqot’in way of life.[/quote]

Legal wrangling over mine

The issue also wound up in the courts on several occasions as the Tsilhqot’in challenged permits for exploratory drilling issued by the Clark Government prior to the conclusion of the federal review for the modified design.

Following a damning environmental assessment of the mine from the review panel late last year, Taseko even took the extraordinary step of requesting a federal judicial review into the panel’s findings.”Taseko is asking the court for a declaration that certain panel findings relating to seepage and water quality be set aside, and that the panel failed in certain respects to comply with principles of procedural fairness,” stated the company’s filing in a Vancouver court.

Door open to different mine proposal for region

In the end, the Harper government sided with the First Nation and the opinions of various scientists who presented to the review panel, including those from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada who raised serious concerns with even the new version of the project. “The Government of Canada will make decisions based on the best available scientific evidence while balancing economic and environmental considerations,” said Aglukkaq, while leaving the door open to another mine in the region:

[quote]The Government will continue to make responsible resource development a priority and invites the submission of another proposal that addresses the Government’s concerns.[/quote]

2011 video on Tsilhqot’in opposition to Prosperity Mine

Giant Mine clean-up involves freezing underground arsenic

Giant Mine clean-up involves freezing underground arsenic

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

YELLOWKNIFE – Plans to clean up what may be Canada’s worst toxic site are moving ahead with changes suggested by those who live beside Yellowknife’s Giant Mine.

Last summer, a northern environmental regulator told the federal cabinet that it wasn’t entirely happy with Ottawa’s plans for the mine, which holds millions of tonnes of arsenic-contaminated waste on the shores of Great Slave Lake.

The Mackenzie Valley Review Board agreed freezing the underground arsenic in place is probably the best solution.

But it sided with aboriginal groups, territorial politicians and the City of Yellowknife, who have strong reservations with the federal plan.

The board eventually recommended an independent watchdog be created to supervise the dangerous cleanup. And it wanted ongoing research funded to find a permanent way to deal with the former gold mine’s deadly legacy, as well as the health and environmental effects of the cleanup.

It also disagreed with federal plans to maintain the frozen arsenic in perpetuity, pointing out forever is a long time. said the board’s report last June:

[quote]The public (does) not have any confidence the (government) can be trusted to fund and actively manage the site forever as proposed.[/quote]

The board recommended a 100-year limit on the time the arsenic can be kept frozen underground. It also said the plan must be reviewed every 20 years.

All those suggestions have survived a consultation process with federal bureaucrats, and have made it into the final draft of the board’s recommendations, submitted this week.

“The board carefully weighed what it got from those parties,” said board manager Alan Ehrlich. “We believe that their underlying interests remain in the recommended measures.”

The recommendations now go before Northern Development Minister Bernard Valcourt.

That document is the result of consultations that began in 2008. It proposes the freezing of 237,000 tonnes of highly toxic and soluble arsenic underground, with 65 kilometres of refrigerating pipes running through cavernous subterranean storage chambers.

There are also 13.5 million tonnes of arsenic-contaminated tailings on the land above. The 95-hectare site contains many structures that are further contaminated with arsenic and other poisons, from asbestos to dioxins.

Some of the structures are in such bad shape the government was forced to apply for emergency permits to take them down last summer before toxins were released.

The latest cost estimate for the entire project is $903 million — all which will be paid by taxpayers.

US woman sues Canadian mining titan Teck over toxins, disease

US woman sues Canadian mining titan Teck over toxins, disease

US woman sues Canadian mining titan Teck over toxins, disease
1988 image of effluent from Teck’s lead and Zinc smelter in Trail, BC (photo: Joel Rogers)

by Dene Moore, Canadian Press

VANCOUVER – A Washington state woman has filed a class-action lawsuit against Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.B), claiming toxic pollutants from the company’s smelter in southeastern British Columbia are to blame for her breast cancer diagnosis and other health ailments.

Barbara Anderson is a longtime resident of Northport, Wash., a small community about 30 kilometres south of Teck’s lead and zinc smelter in Trail.

The lawsuit filed in the Eastern District Court says Anderson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 and inflammatory bowel disease in 2010. Says the claim, filed Thursday:

[quote]Teck negligently, carelessly and recklessly generated, handled, stored, treated, disposed of and failed to control and contain the metals and other toxic substances at the Trail smelter, resulting in the release of toxic substances and exposure of plaintiff and the proposed class. [/quote]

US government, aboriginal group sue for $1 Billion in clean-up costs

The smelter has been in operation under various ownership since 1896. Last year, the Vancouver-based mining giant admitted in another lawsuit brought by the Colville Confederated Tribes that effluent from the smelter polluted the Columbia River in Washington for more than a century.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency eventually joined that lawsuit and wants Teck to pay the estimated $1-billion cost of cleaning up the contamination.

The latest lawsuit claims that between 1930 and 1995, the smelter discharged into the Columbia River at least 9 million tonnes of slag containing zinc, lead, copper, arsenic cadmium, barium, antimony, chromium, cobalt, manganese, nickel, selenium and titanium.

“This discharge was intentional and made with knowledge that the waste slag contained metals,” says the complaint.

Teck has spent more than a billion dollars on improvements to the Trail operation. Today, the company says, metals from the smelter are lower than levels that occur naturally in the river.

The company has also spent millions remediating the area in and around Trail following decades of industry, but the company said the international border complicates the issues.

Recent toxic release

Though the discharges were meant to end in 1996, the suit claims there have been numerous unintentional releases since then, most recently in March 2011, when 350,000 litres of caustic effluent went into the river.

A 2012 study by the Washington Department of Ecology found elevated levels of lead, antimony, mercury, zinc, cadmium and arsenic in soil, lakes and wetlands downriver from the plant, the lawsuit claims.

And another study, concluded this summer by the Crohn’s and Colitis Centre at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, found that among 119 current and former residents of Northport, there were 17 cases of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease — a rate 10 to 15 times higher than expected in a population of that size.

The lawsuit also says the smelter released 123 tonnes of mercury into the air from 1926 to 2005, and discharged at least 180 tonnes into the river in that time.

Complaints go back 70 years

Complaints south of the border about the contamination from the Trail smelter surfaced as early as the 1940s, when farmers from Washington state sued Cominco, Teck’s predecessor, over air pollution. That case was eventually resolved in arbitration by the two federal governments and set a precedent for cross-border pollution law.

Anderson and potentially others who could form part of a class-action, if approved, “have suffered a personal injury as a result of Teck’s wrongful conduct in violation of federal common law, nuisance, and Washington negligence and strict liability laws,” the claim says.

The suit asks the court for a declaration that the Trail smelter is “a public nuisance and an abnormally dangerous activity.”

[quote]Teck releases and has released hazardous and toxic substances, which create a high risk of significant harm…Teck has known or should have known about the potential health, safety and environmental dangers these substances pose to the public.[/quote]

The company has a duty to prevent injury, it says.

The allegations in the lawsuit have not been proven in court. Teck has yet to be served with the lawsuit and file a response with the court.

“It’s possible that this could take a long time,” Barbara Mahoney, Anderson’s lawyer, said Friday.

Taseko wants judicial review into Prosperity Mine's harsh assessment

Taseko wants judicial review into Prosperity Mine’s harsh assessment

Taseko wants judicial review into Prosperity Mine's harsh assessment
Fish Lake, near the proposed “New Prosperity” Mine in BC

VANCOUVER – Taseko Mines Ltd. (TSX:TKO) has formally requested a judicial review of a critical environmental assessment for the proposed New Prosperity copper-gold mine in the B.C. Interior.

The company said Monday it has filed the request with the Federal Court in Vancouver to comply with a 30-day time limit.

Taseko has objected to parts of the assessment, saying the panel based its conclusions on faulty information — failing to account for a design feature intended to prevent seepage of contaminant material from a tailings storage facility. Said the company:

[quote]Taseko is asking the court for a declaration that certain panel findings relating to seepage and water quality be set aside, and that the panel failed in certain respects to comply with principles of procedural fairness[/quote]

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has said it is reviewing information provided by Taseko.

Last month, an agency panel released a report saying it didn’t believe Taseko’s design for the project could avoid contaminating nearby Fish Lake. The survival of the lake is at the centre of the dispute.

The assessment found the project would have “significant adverse environmental effects” on water quality, fish and fish habitat in the lake, on grizzly habitat and on First Nations traditional activities.

The final decision on allowing the mine to proceed is in the hands of federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

The review is a second attempt by the company to have the project approved.

The proposed mine has already been rejected once after an earlier assessment because the company proposed using the lake as the tailings pond.

“Taseko had no choice but to file this application in order to comply with a 30-day time limit,” Taseko president and CEO Russell Hallbauer said.

[quote]But we remain of the view that the federal government should allow the project to proceed to the next stage of detailed permit-level examination and if so the judicial review would not need to proceed.[/quote]

No Prosperity for Taseko? Report should kill mine, but company keeps digging

No Prosperity for Taseko? Report should kill mine; company digs in

No Prosperity for Taseko? Report should kill mine, but company keeps digging
Xeni Gwet’in Chief Roger William is celebrating a scathing new report on a proposed mine in his territory

A second, damning federal report on a proposed mine west of Williams Lake, BC, amid Tsilhqot’in First Nation territory, should sound the gold and copper mine’s death knell.

The report, which follows five weeks of hearings earlier this year into an updated version of the mine proposal, states:

[quote]…the New Prosperity Project would result in several significant adverse environmental effects; the key ones being effects on water quality in Fish Lake (Teztan Biny), on fish and fish habitat in Fish Lake, on current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes by certain Aboriginal groups, and on their cultural heritage.[/quote]

Strong words from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, which suggest the “New” Prosperity Mine proposal did little to address the reasons its predecessor was rejected by Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice in 2010.

The Panel also foresaw a “significant adverse cumulative effect on the South Chilcotin grizzly bear population, unless necessary cumulative effects mitigation measures are effectively implemented.”

The report will now be referred to the federal Cabinet for the final decision.

Taseko vows to keep digging

While the Panel’s findings were celebrated as a “victory” by local First Nations – who came out 100% against the project throughout the recent hearings – the company downplayed the report’s impact and vowed to press on with the project.

Taseko Vice President and project spokesperson Brian Battinson told the CBC this morning, “The report, in many respects, agrees with our assessment – the risks are modest and the social and economic benefits are enormous.”

But in the scientific lexicon, “significant adverse effects” do not equate to “modest” risks. It was this sort of language in a previous report that killed the mine’s first iteration. So what Battinson and company are counting on is disproportionate weight being given to the “enormous” economic benefits they’re touting for the project.

Jobs vs. Environment

Taseko may be right, given the political climate in Ottawa and Victoria. We know that Premier Christy Clark has been pressing the Harper Government to approve the mine and the Prime Minister has made no bones about his commitment to  “extractive industries” as the cornerstone for Canada’s economy.

The decision will likely come down to whether the federal Cabinet agrees with Mr. Battinson’s risk-vs.-reward characterization – i.e. whether the impacts are as minimal and the job benefits as “enormous” as he contends.

But should it? Is it acceptable to contaminate a lake, potentially destroy fish populations, trample on the rights and quality of life of local First Nations, seriously threaten grizzly populations…so long as enough jobs are created?

Worth the risk for Harper?

Moreover, in the “risk” column lies more than just environmental impacts. Stephen Harper seems to have recognized of late that some of the key energy projects on which he’s basing his economic vision – the proposed Enbridge and Kinder Morgan oil pipelines to BC’s coast – have been severely undermined by his tone-deaf approach to First Nations.

In redering their verdict on the New Propsperity Mine, Cabinet will have to weigh out the broader political implications of overruling not just their own government panel’s report, but the strong objections of First Nations. The latter would further undermine Harper’s efforts to win First Nations’ approval for proposed pipeline projects in BC.

My bet is Harper will wisely cut Taseko loose.


Bait and Switch: Red Chris Mine, ‘Green’ Funding and the Northwest Transmission Line


The Northwest Transmission Line (NTL), a 344-kilometre, 287 kilovolt transmission line currently being built by BC Hydro between Skeena Substation (near Terrace, B.C.) and a new substation to be built near Bob Quinn Lake, is expected to be in operation by spring 2014. The NTL runs through rugged, avalanche-prone terrain. During construction, cost estimates for the first phase of the NTL have ballooned from $404 million to $617 million.

While AltaGas has contributed $180 million to the NTL, and $130 million comes from the federal government, BC Hydro is responsible for the extra costs, which have grown to over $300 million. In the future, it’s likely that B.C. residents can expect skyrocketing hydro bills to help pay the growing financial burden of NTL construction.

To help fund the NTL, the B.C. Government received $130 million from the federal Green Infrastructure Fund. The contract between the two parties states that the Province was obligated to deliver plans for an extension of the NTL to Iskut – to get the community off diesel power – by June 30, 2012, or risk being in breach of contract and defaulting on the funding agreement.

B.C. did not deliver the plans in time. In fact, it wasn’t until March 2013, almost nine months after the deadline, that Imperial Metals and BC Hydro announced that the mining company would build a 93 km extension of the NTL to Tatogga Lake and its proposed Red Chris mine. BC Hydro agreed to buy this NTL extension for $52 million, and to build a smaller power line from Tatogga Lake to Iskut.

The line to Red Chris will not require a new environmental assessment, and is exempt from reviews that would normally be required to determine if it was necessary or if construction costs have been properly assessed. In other words, the power line to Red Chris is being fast-tracked.

If allowed to proceed as planned, the open pit Red Chris mine would destroy prime wildlife habitat for Stone sheep and grizzly bear, and leave a tailings impoundment that would pose a long-term risk to fish habitat and water quality at the headwaters of the Iskut River. It’s hard to see what’s “green” about that.

Apart from connecting Iskut (population 350) to the grid, little about the NTL would seem to qualify for green funding. According to the Federal Government website, the Green Infrastructure Fund supports “projects that will improve the quality of the environment and…that promote cleaner air, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and cleaner water.” It’s a stretch to say the NTL does any of those things.

In reality, the transmission line could be the catalyst for an unprecedented wave of industrial development in northwest B.C., including up to 11 new mines in the Unuk, Iskut and Stikine River watersheds. These transboundary watersheds – flowing from B.C. into Alaska – are some of the last remaining largely intact watersheds in North America, sustaining robust populations of wild salmon and wildlife such as Stone sheep, grizzly bears, wolverine, and migratory birds.

If built, the new mines would bring open pits, industrial roads, greenhouse gas emissions, tailings ponds, and the risk of acid mine drainage throughout the watersheds. Red Chris would be the first of these mines to be developed.

Impacts are already occurring. Contractors clearing the right-of-way for the NTL have piled the cut trees into giant fifty foot tall tipi-shaped piles. Instead of selling the wood – some 490,000 cubic metres are being cut to clear the NTL right-of-way, enough wood to fill 16,000 logging trucks – the trees are simply being burned, with towers of flame turning the once living forest into smoke and ash.

As independent MLA Bob Simpson points out in the Vancouver Sun, the clear-cut and the wood-burning may put the province in violation of two of its own laws: The Clean Energy Act, which sets targets for carbon emissions reductions, and the Zero Net Deforestation Act, which contains a pledge to replace tracts of forest removed from the land base with plantings elsewhere.

In the name of “improving the environment”, the federal government gave $130 million of Green Infrastructure funding to the NTL, a project that could lead to the construction of multiple open pit mines in the transboundary watersheds. In order to receive the funding, the Province of B.C. was contractually required to deliver plans for the NTL extension by a certain date, but missed the deadline for delivering the plans. They still took the cash. Now it turns out they need a lot more money.

B.C. is quietly piling on the debt at BC Hydro as the cost of the NTL balloons – costs that may ultimately be paid by ratepayers in increased energy fees. While proponents tout the NTL as a “green” project that will provide cleaner energy and economic stimulus to a depressed region, in reality, it is a massive subsidy to industry, opening the region to large-scale mining and the subsequent destruction of wildlife habitat, and increased threats to water quality and wild salmon habitat in the transboundary rivers.

Tadzio Richards is Rivers Without Borders’ Transboundary Conservation Campaigner.

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