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22nd July 2022
EDITORS NOTE: As you read this article, please remember that mines are contained within our watersheds.

B.C. has a growing mine waste problem. The risks could be catastrophic

As the province permits mines to hold more tailings slurry behind ever-growing dams, a new report finds the consequences of a failure grow in step. Climate change could make things even worse

By Francesca Fionda
July 14, 2022

Shaun Strobel is hoping for a healthy return of Sockeye salmon to B.C.’s Fraser River this August. He grew up fishing, joining his father who got his start in the former fishing village of Steveston, in Richmond, on the Fraser in the late 1970s. “I spent every summer from the time I was seven until 19 on board,” Strobel says. Today, he co-leads Skipper Otto, a community supported fishery made up of 40 different fishing families across B.C. and Nunavut.

The Fraser River salmon runs have been the cornerstone of fisheries in B.C. for thousands of years, says Skipper Otto co-founder and CEO Sonia Strobel, also Shaun’s wife. “It can’t be overstated how significant the Fraser River salmon runs are to the economy in British Columbia, to ecosystems.”

But that hasn’t stopped mining companies from building large tailings dams upstream from communities and critical salmon habitat on the Fraser, nor the government from approving them. And the situation is getting worse. A new report released by BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild, along with an interactive online map, illustrates how the consequences of a dam failure here could be catastrophic, potentially killing hundreds of people, destroying infrastructure and wiping out ecosystems.

“It’s an unthinkable disaster to think about toxic tailings flowing into the Fraser River into surrounding communities,” Sonia Strobel says.

The major consequences of a tailings dam failure, though, aren’t limited to the Fraser River. The report, released today and titled Protecting Communities and Watersheds: Risks of Tailings Dam Failures in the Face of Climate Change, uses new analysis of 172 tailings dams at 75 different mining sites across B.C., and an additional 11 proposed sites. Tailings are crushed mining waste rock with anything desirable removed, and can contain trace heavy metals, selenium and sometimes toxins like arsenic or cyanide. The waste is typically watered down and stored in above ground facilities, retained by tailings dams.

Currently, the province has enough liquid mining waste to fill one million Olympic-sized swimming pools —– and that’s expected to increase by 75 per cent with the 11 proposed new mines, according to the report. The analysis found the height of dams and volume of tailings in these storage facilities have been increasing exponentially. If these sites fail, the consequences could be catastrophic leading to loss of human life, damage to roads and infrastructure and the destruction of ecosystems like salmon watersheds.

“This is a scary situation going into the future,” says report author Steven Emerman, a geophysicist and expert in groundwater and mining. He found that over half of the existing tailings dam sites and almost all proposed sites will have high, very high or extreme consequences if they were to fail — meaning the water and tailings held back by the dam is released. Consequence ratings are assigned using a system established by the Canadian Dam Association. The rating looks at the potential loss of human life, critical habitats and infrastructure.

“It means right now, we aren’t building tailings dams where fewer than 10 people could die if it fails,” Emerman says.

B.C. is building bigger, not better, when it comes to mine tailings storage

Emerman has evaluated proposed and existing tailings storage facilities around the world. He found dams in B.C. are being built bigger and holding more toxic waste from mining activity. It’s urgent that we stop building huge tailings dams for which the consequences of failure are extreme, Emerman says.

The Copper Mountain Mining Corporation, which owns its namesake mine outside Princeton, B.C., on the Similkameen River, is looking to nearly double the mine’s tailings capacity to 420 million cubic metres. In order to contain it, they want to increase the allowable height of the mine’s tailings dam from 192 metres to 255 metres — higher than the tallest skyscraper in Vancouver.

To the concern of downstream residents in B.C. and Washington state, the expansion could be approved without an environmental assessment. Don Strickland, chief operating officer for Copper Mountain, told The Narwhal in 2021 the proposed expansion, which would extend the mine’s lifespan by 21 years, does not meet provincial requirements for an environmental assessment.

Instead, he said the expansion proposal will undergo “a very rigid permit review process,” which requires authorization from multiple provincial ministries.

The tailings facility is also built using the upstream dam method, which has 200 per cent more stability issues than other designs, according to the report. An upstream dam is progressively built on top of settled tailings and is cheaper to build as it uses less material. “There’s a really concerning combination of risk factors happening” ecologist and mining researcher at SkeenaWild Adrienne Berchtold says.

In B.C., upstream dams are permitted, even though they’ve been banned in other countries like Chile, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil after devastating collapses. In Brazil, the government has ordered mining companies to remove all tailings dams built this way.

Scientists and environmentalists have called for a ban on the construction of upstream dams for years.

While the odds of failure are hard to calculate, it does happen. The Mount Polley mine disaster in 2014 released 25 billion litres of contaminated materials into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake after its tailings dam failed. The waste flowed into drinking water and major spawning grounds for sockeye salmon. Work is still being done to rebuild some of the fish habitat that was destroyed.

That disaster also saw a call for meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities that could be affected by a failure at tailings facilities.

“We’ve seen the disasters of Mount Polley mine and other failures worldwide — now at an average of over 22 every decade — grossly impacting Indigenous communities, neighbouring communities and the land and watersheds they protect,” Loretta Williams, of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining, previously told The Narwhal.

“The free, prior and informed consent of local communities is essential to improving the safety of mine tailings storage,” she said.

Michael Goehring, president and CEO of the Mining Association of BC, told The Narwhal in an emailed statement that he had not reviewed a copy of the report yet but stated that mines in B.C. are governed by, “robust, science-driven laws and regulations from the initial stages of exploration through to decades after mine closure.”

Goehring pointed to Ministry of Mines internal audit released in 2021 that determined the province has, “one of the best tailings storage facility (TSF) regulatory frameworks in the world.”

The audit included seven recommendations, “which the government accepted and is implementing” Goehring said.

That audit, which was designed to assess whether the province is doing enough to prevent a repeat of the Mount Polley disaster, also found a lack of data, incomplete records and ambiguous regulations are undermining best practices when it comes to ensuring tailings facilities are effectively monitored and kept safe.

“Mining regulations are continuously being reviewed,” Goehring said. He offered the example of a group made up of industry, labour and First Nations members that meets regularly to measure B.C.’s Health, Safety and Reclamation Code against industry best practices for tailings storage facilities, and propose necessary changes.

Consequences of a failure in the Fraser River watershed could be massive

The Highland Valley Copper Mine is located in the Fraser River watershed on Nlaka’pamux Nation territory. It stores 1.2 billion cubic metres of tailings at one of its five storage facilities. That’s about 480,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to the analysis. The consequences of a failure at Highland Valley Copper sites are rated from low to extreme.

In the downstream district leading up to and including Hope, there are some 4,000 people living in the flood path or “inundation zone” of Highland Valley Copper, according to the company’s tailings storage facility operations, maintenance and surveillance manual. If there was a breach of their biggest tailings dam, the wave of wastewater could be approximately 25 to 30 metres deep and flood an estimated 1,680 homes in Hope alone. But the impacts wouldn’t necessarily stop there.

“In the event of a complete facility failure, these tailings could be released into the lower Fraser River, potentially impacting communities downstream such as Abbotsford, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Delta, Richmond, Surrey and Vancouver,” reads a primer of BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild’s report.

“This example of the Highland [tailings storage facility] is one of B.C.’s worst cases, if not the worst case, for failure consequences in terms of lives lost,” Berchtold explained in an email to The Narwhal.

A spokesperson for Teck Resources, owner of Highland Valley Copper mine, told The Narwhal that there is, “daily monitoring and inspection, internal and external audits and independent third-party expert reviews,” of the tailings storage facility. The spokesperson, Dale Steeves, said all of Teck’s “tailings facilities are operated and maintained to meet global best practices for safety.”

The most recent annual report for Teck facilities confirmed they are stable and secure, he added.

Teck hasn’t reviewed BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild’s recent report but said communities living near the Highland Valley Copper mine site have participated in emergency planning exercises and detailed information about their facilities is available online.

But the true risk of a tailings dam failure in B.C. is unknown, Berchtold says. While the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation has done a lot of work to improve access to information, she says there’s still a lack of transparency. When Berchtold and the team were collecting information for the report and an interactive map of mine sites and consequence levels across B.C., information was hard to find and not consistently reported. “There was a lot of digging that we had to do, just to figure out these basic risk factors of different facilities.”

There is no information on why a facility has a certain consequence category, Berchtold says. The rating is based on the potential loss of life, environmental damage and economic damage if the site was to fail. “But they don’t tell you, ‘this facility is rated extreme because it will kill more than 100 people if it fails.’

Continued in Part Two