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Over a hundred known, potentially contaminated mine waste sites in British Columbia – NGOs

Aerial view of Mount Polley tailings dam breach in August 2014. (Image courtesy of Business in Vancouver).

Two maps produced by SkeenaWild Conservation Trust and the BC Mining Law Reform Network show that there are over a hundred known and potentially contaminated mine waste sites that threaten to pollute waters, fish habitat and communities across the western Canadian province of British Columbia. 

In detail, the maps display 173 coal and metal mines across BC, including all major mines as well as historic mines where over 300,000 tonnes of ore were extracted, if production ceased before 1985, or over 10,000 tonnes if production ceased during or after 1985.

The maps also show whether mines are proposed (16), operating (17), in care and maintenance (17), closed/abandoned (84), or historic sites that are being redeveloped for further mining (39).

After gathering the information that makes up the maps, SkeenaWild and the BC Mining Law Reform Network noticed that only two of the 173 sites analyzed are demonstrated to pose no current water contamination threat.

Meanwhile, the data show that 116 of the sites have either already contaminated the surrounding environment, or have the known potential to do so. Acid mine drainage is a concern at 71 sites, many of which will still encounter water contamination issues even if acidic drainage is mitigated.

According to the NGOs, even though 55 of the sites have no publicly available information about their contamination risk, many seem likely to have some contamination concern, given their location and deposit geology.

One of the maps produced by SkeenaWild and the BC Mining Law Reform Network.

“Mining poses risks of water contamination from acid mine drainage and heavy metal and pollutant leaching,” the organizations said in a media statement. “At times, this can result in the need for water treatment in perpetuity which can cost taxpayers millions, as with the Britannia Mine that has cost $40 million for clean-up to date and an additional $3 million annually to reduce acid mine drainage and heavy metals from entering Howe Sound.” 

An example of the mines depicted on the maps is the closed Tulsequah Chief mine, owned by Chieftain Metals, and which has been leaking acid mine drainage into the Taku watershed near the British Columbia-Alaska border for over 60 years.

Only two of the 173 sites on the maps are demonstrated to pose no current water contamination threat

“As well as being highly acidic, the contaminated water includes copper and zinc, among other contaminants, at levels far exceeding BC Water Quality standards,” the press brief states. “The BC remediation plan was released in 2020 with three different options for controlling and addressing the water contamination issues.”

The estimated cost of dealing with the problem is close to $60 million, with annual costs of over a million. Yet, SkeenaWild and the BCMLRN said the provincial government has collected just over a $1 million reclamation bond for Tulsequah Chief.

Other examples

Other cases highlighted are those of Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine, which is under care and maintenance after its tailings pond collapsed on August 4, 2014, spilling 24 million cubic metres of solid and liquid mine wastes into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake; and Copper Mountain and Mitsubishi’s operating Copper Mountain mine, where seepage from the West dam is currently discharging directly into the Similkameen River at 60 litres/second or 5.2 million litres per day. 

Glencore Canada’s Bell and Granisle copper mines, which are closed, have acid rock drainage potential and discharge wastewater directly into the Babine Lake, are also shown on the maps. In the view of the NGOs, this water can contain copper concentrations up to 20x greater than provincial water quality guidelines, as well as a number of other elevated contaminants.

Finally, another case presented on the maps is that of the Elk Valley Watershed, where selenium pollution has been detected from Teck Resources’ mountain-top removal coal mines in the Rocky Mountains, which flows into the Elk River and then into the Kootenay River, hundreds of kilometres downstream through Montana, Idaho and back into BC. 

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