De Beers pleads guilty to failing to report mercury monitoring results at Victor mine

Victor mine was Ontario’s first and only diamond mine and the second De Beers mine in Canada. (Image courtesy of De Beers)

In a resolution to a years-long dispute, De Beers Canada has plead guilty to one count of failing to report annual mercury monitoring results for the G2 station at Victor mine in 2014 as required under the mine’s Certificate of Approval.

De Beers was not charged with failing to take samples, monitoring or for polluting the environment.

The open-pit diamond mine operated by De Beers Canada Inc. is located upstream from the Attawapiskat First Nation. Beginning in 2008, the project pumped water from the open pit into the Granny Creek water system which flows into the Attawapiskat River, triggering a rise in the mercury level in the water and the fish populations.

The mine ceased operations in 2019 but is required to continue monitoring mercury according to its provincial permit. De Beers Canada was required to report mercury monitoring data annually from eight mercury monitoring stations and one control site located on the Granny Creek water system.

The resolution on June 30 concluded the private prosecution Ecojustice launched in partnership with former prosecutor David Wright, based on evidence collected by Wildlands League.

The evidence indicated that De Beers had failed to report mercury and methylmercury levels in water systems around the Victor Mine over a period of seven years.

Methylmercury is a harmful poison, and exposure to increased levels of mercury puts local populations and the environment at risk. Elevated levels of mercury in river water can present a danger to human health even in extremely small quantities, Ecojustice said in a news release.

In a 2013 report, De Beers acknowledged that the Canadian standards “are not sufficiently protective” of the environment and that it is more appropriate to rely on the US EPA standards

Mercury accumulates in fish and is found in higher levels in larger fish such as pike. The reporting failures undermined the effectiveness of the mine’s early warning system for mercury pollution, Ecojustice said.

Mercury monitoring data repeatedly exceeded US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reference guidelines for wildlife and human exposure to mercury from monitoring stations between 2008 and 2015.

In a 2013 report, De Beers acknowledged that the Canadian standards “are not sufficiently protective” of the environment and that it is more appropriate to rely on the US EPA standards.

In court, De Beers agreed that it did not report the 2014 sampling results for total mercury at the G2 monitoring station in its 2014 annual report. While including in the report data from that station, which is located between two other stations – the sampling from which were reported, would not have changed the outcome of the monitoring analysis, De Beers acknowledges that this information should nonetheless have been reported in line with the condition.

“Mercury was never used during operations at the mine and is naturally occurring throughout the James Bay lowlands,” De Beers said in an emailed statement.

The company said all sampling results taken at the G2 station were well within Canadian and Provincial Water Quality Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Life and complied with the mine’s Certificate of Approval.

“De Beers monitors for mercury and methyl mercury in the surrounding environment and will continue to do so as required by permits and approvals. All sampling results for mercury have complied with the mine’s Certificate of Approval, and all annual mercury monitoring reports for Victor mine are publicly available on De Beers Canada’s website,” the company said.

The company said the mercury monitoring program for Victor mine is more rigorous than that of any other mine in Ontario.

“Throughout the life of Victor mine, mercury and other water quality data were collected from all monitoring stations specified in the mine’s Certificate of Approval,” De Beers said.

As per the terms of the resolution, De Beers agreed to publicize all past and future annual mercury monitoring reports on its website.

The case sets a precedent for mining activities in the province, including “Ring of Fire” area in Northern Ontario, and how mining pollution is to be reported and regulated.

“The precedent set by this case will help improve regulatory oversight of future mine projects and should make polluters think twice in the event they are tempted to sidestep their reporting duties,” Ecojustice lawyer Zachary Biech said.

De Beers said it spent $2.6 billion to build and operate the mine, of which $820 million has gone to Indigenous and local businesses in northern Ontario. It also paid C$110 million in royalties to the government of Ontario and another C$100 million in corporate social investment and payments to communities.

During its operation, the Victor mine yielded roughly 8.1 million carats of diamonds.