Gitxaala Nation accuses B.C. government of delaying mining site clean-up

Two-hundred kilograms of waste material have been sitting for over a year in the streams around the Yellow Giant gold mine, near Prince Rupert, B.C. The information was provided by James Witzke, Environmental Assessment Manager at Gitxaala Environmental Monitoring Office, who is relying on an initial assessment ordered by the Gitxaala Nation and performed by Pottinger Gaherty Environmental Consultants.

“The government has not taken any action to clean up that site,” Witzke said. “They are saying: ‘Well, we are doing an assessment to figure out what our plan is and how much we need to do to clean up the site. But I don’t believe that that’s what they’re doing.”

Banks Island Gold along with its CEO and chief geologist, are facing charges for allegedly releasing waste material into woods, wetland, and water on a Hecate Strait island.

On July 15, 2015, the Ministry of Energy and Mines ordered Banks Island Gold Ltd. to cease and desist operations at the site, after having inspected it five days before. The Director of Environmental Management Act for the Southern Interior Region, Cassandra Caunce, issued a pollution abatement order, saying the company had released tailings and effluent into a creek, a lake, a pond, as well as forest and wetland on Banks Island. She also said that the tailings would continue to seep if activities were not stopped.

Now, Banks Island Gold, its president and CEO Benjamin Mossman and its chief geologist Dirk Meckert are facing charges for allegedly releasing the waste material and are scheduled to appear in court on September 7, 2016. The company also filed for bankruptcy in January 2016.

But James Witzke says legal actions don’t fix the real problem. People around the area are worried about the heavy metals now contaminating salmon-bearing streams and moving into the ocean, where they harvest fish and seaweed.

“Nobody has done a complete and full assessment of the extent of contamination,” he said. “The question is what would someone need to do? Could they go up there with shovels and clean up with the contamination? Or, would they have to go up there with excavators? Or what would that look like?”

North Coast NDP MLA Jennifer Rice said at the B.C. Legislature on May 2, 2016 that the provincial Ministry of Mines failed to check in with Banks Island Gold Mine for the first 15 months they were operating. She also said authorities only stepped on the site when an employee contacted them about ongoing problems.

Gitxaala Nation accuses B.C. government of delaying mining site clean-up

James Witzke, Environmental Assessment Manager at Gitxaala Environmental Monitoring Office (Source: LinkedIn)

Information from the Ministry shows that it was indeed in response to complaints that inspectors visited the mine and issued stop-work orders on July 9, 2015 at two exploration sites on Banks Island.

But prior to that, ministry staff carried out three inspections at Yellow Giant Mine following the issuance of its Mines Act permit on March 4, 2014, with the first inspection taking place on July 15, 2014.

Later on, officials conducted two more mine inspections — one November 27, 2014 and March 19, 2015 — before receiving and acting on the aforementioned complaints.

But the Gitxaala still criticize what they deem a lack of continued oversight. “What we believe is happening is that the site is under receivership and the receiver is trying to find a mining company to purchase the lease, in order to recover the funds that were lost when Banks Island Gold declared bankruptcy,” Witzke said. “We believe the government is waiting for a company to come along and do that, so the government doesn’t have to spend its own money on clean-up.”

Indeed. According to a Vancouver Sun story that quotes Ministry of Energy and Mines spokesman David Haslam, the B.C. Supreme Court-appointed receiver has not received any successful bids for Banks Island Gold.

Witzke understands why no company would want to adventure into Yellow Giant. He says that not only the site has little potential for gold, but also anyone taking on its operations would have to spend money on the clean-up and deal with widespread First Nation opposition to mining activities in the area. “This place has a history of having been mismanaged and we won’t tolerate it anymore.”

According to government estimates presented by B.C. Chief Inspector of Mines Al Hoffman, clean-up efforts and remediation costs could add up to more than half a million dollars. Currently, the province holds $450,000 in security from Banks Island Gold for the Yellow Giant mine.

The Sun also reported that the ministry has had discussions with MCC Non-Ferrous Trading, the leading creditor for Banks Island Gold, about what it would take for it to reopen the Yellow Giant.

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This story has been corrected from a previous version.