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New BC gold mine exposes gap in federal oversight

Changes made two years ago to a century-old federal law mean that a giant new gold mine just approved by the province for northwestern British Columbia will get reduced federal oversight -- and risk creating an international flashpoint.

The B.C. government yesterday gave Seabridge Gold Inc.'s proposed Kerr-Sulpherets-Mitchell gold mine, in the headwaters of the Unuk River, a certificate of approval, concluding that the $5.3-billion open-pit project is unlikely to have any adverse environmental impacts.

That confidence is questionable. The international gold-mining industry has a long and troubling record of serious environmental damage arising from its operations, including rivers and estuaries heavily contaminated by cyanide, arsenic and other chemicals either used in processing ore or released from the ground when it is mined.

The potential implications for the Unuk River, which begins in Canada but runs for the last 40 kilometres of its course through the Alaska panhandle, have alarmed that state's residents.

The mine still requires federal approval. But changes to the law enacted in 2012 will lower that hurdle. Until then, the Unuk River, along with every other Canadian waterway large enough to float a canoe -- and their smaller tributaries -- was protected by the Navigable Waters Protection Act. The act was employed frequently in its more than a century of existence to exert federal power to prevent contamination of rivers and lakes.

Renamed the Navigation Protection Act in 2012, its coverage was withdrawn from all but 62 Canadian rivers, the three oceans and 97 lakes. (See the complete list here.) The Unuk did not make the cut.

Changes to the even older Fisheries Act, made at the same time, also limited federal protection of fish to species of cultural, recreational or commercial use to humans. The Unuk may still warrant federal protection under that law's newly limited terms however: it is home to southeast Alaska's largest Chinook run.

Chris Wood, author of Down the Drain: How We Are Failing to Protect Our Water Resources and Dry Spring: The Coming Water Crisis of North America, is a freelance writer living in Mexico. Wood is also editor for Tyee Solutions Society.

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