Mining threats UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Canada

Almost one-third of threats to Canadian World Heritage Sites in the past three decades have been the product of both mining and oil and gas operations, CBC reported quoting information from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Out of 75 documented threats against a total of nine designated natural and cultural sites, 23 belong to the "physical resource extraction" category.  Most of them, occurred in the first 13 years of the new millennium when energy prices reached record highs.

Wood Buffalo in northern Alberta was the focus of attention in the organization’s latest report, which dates back to 2015. The national park received nine reports, one of which relates to Teck Resources' proposal for its Frontier open-pit mine which falls partially within a watershed sub-basin that flows directly in the property into Lake Claire, the largest lake within the Peace-Athabasca Delta.

In a petition filed in December 2014, the Mikisew Cree said that the Frontier Mine would be "the first mine within the last remaining intact forest and ungulate habitat that is contiguous with the WBNP. As such, the Frontier Mine provides the most direct threat to the PAD from an oil sands development to date.”  

UNESCO says that the Peace-Athabasca Delta also faces potential dangers from a breach of a tailings pond, given the number of oil sands tailings ponds that are located along the Athabasca River.

In Danger – A Call to Save Wood Buffalo National Park from Mark Gustafson on Vimeo.

An in-depth look at UNESCO’s database also shows that mining, specifically, accounts for 14 reports of threats focused on three properties: the Canadian Rocky Mountains, Nahanni National Park, and Waterton Glacier International Peace Park.

When it comes to the Rockies, the Cheviot mine 3 kilometres east of Jasper National Park has been the international organization’s biggest concern since 2006. Although the project’s footprint is smaller than it was originally estimated due to the fact that coal is transported 22 kilometres to the Luscar processing plant, UNESCO believes that operators are not taking the necessary actions to mitigate the mine’s impacts on grizzly bear populations.

Mining and oil and gas extraction accounts for 31% of threats against natural and cultural sites in Canada since 1985.

Nahanni National Park is another area of concern due to the Canadian Zinc Corporation’s 7,487 hectares Prairie Creek Lead-Zinc-Silver Project, whose pre-feasibility study was updated in March 2016. It targets an average annual production rate of 60,000 dry metric tonnes of zinc concentrate and 55,000 dry metric tonnes of lead concentrate, containing 86 million pounds of zinc, 82 million pound of lead and 1.7 million ounces of silver.

The main worry with this project is that “conditions of the water licence did not fully address key mitigation measures required in the environmental assessment, including certain protective measures related to a tailings pond and consideration of the feasibility of the site proposed for a polishing pond.  The requirement to develop objectives for water quality monitoring with Parks Canada was also excluded,” the latest report reads.

In regards to the Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, UNESCO considers that there needs to be strict enforcement of the Memorandum of Understanding and Cooperation on Environmental Protection, Climate Action and Energy signed between the province of British Columbia and the state of Montana in 2010.

Of particular concern are mining activities in the transboundary Flathead River Basin watershed, which the UN agency believes are not compatible with the protection of the Outstanding Universal Value of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Thus, it recommends permanent prohibition of mining and energy development in the Canadian Flathead.

Although B.C. took actions like issuing a no disposition notation that identifies that petroleum and natural gas rights will not be posted for tenure in the Flathead, creating a mineral and coal reserve to prevent acquisition of new mineral titles and coal tenures, and publishing a Cabinet Order to prohibit the issuing of Mines Act permits in its portion of the Flathead, UNESCO says that more needs to be done.

The focus of attention is in removing barriers that block the free mobility of different species in the area. “The mission recommended a long-term moratorium be placed on any further mining developments in southeastern British Columbia in a corridor providing vital habitat connectivity and to the Rocky Mountains World Heritage property in Alberta,” the document states.