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We Failed with Mount Polley. Let’s Make It Right with Tulsequah Chief

Site cleanup may soon begin. A burnish for BC’s mining laws should be next.

Will Patric 9 Aug

Will Patric is the director of Rivers Without Borders and Rivers Without Borders Canada.

As the final deadline came and went this weekend to press charges against Imperial Metals for its 2014 tailings pond breach at the Mount Polley mine, it became clear that there is little accountability when it comes to large corporations polluting the environment.

We’d like to see that change.

B.C. still has an opportunity to prove to its residents — and its neighbours — that it values responsible mining practices. That starts with the cleanup of the Tulsequah Chief Mine in the province’s northwest, which has been leaking toxic waste into the Taku watershed, home to the Taku River Tlingit First Nation and upstream of Juneau, Alaska, for more than 60 years. 

Recent estimates indicate that 12.8 litres of acidic, metals-laced water escape the mine site every second — over 400 million litres per year — into the Tulsequah River, the largest tributary of the Taku.

Earlier this year, the province accepted proposals from two consulting firms to begin developing remediation plans that would see the mine properly closed and cleaned up. It’s a promising first step.

The Tulsequah mine may seem far-removed from most B.C. residents, but it represents a long history of allowing corporations to run rampant over the landscape, putting companies ahead of people and, in this case, threatening a multi-million-dollar salmon-fishing industry that’s an integral part of southeast Alaska’s economy.

Located 100 kilometres southwest of Atlin, the Tulsequah Chief was operated from 1950 to 1957 by Cominco, then abandoned. It was subsequently purchased by Redfern Resources Ltd. in 1997 and then Chieftain Metals in 2010. In both cases, the mining companies agreed to address pollution problems as a condition of their environmental certificates. In both cases, they went into receivership before that could happen.

Here’s where the story begins to parallel that of Mount Polley and other dangerously under-bonded mines in B.C. The province has a history of trusting mining operations with a poor track record, an insufficient deposit and an unstable financial situation. It all comes down to this: B.C.’s mining laws are hopelessly out of date.

By comparison, Quebec updated its mining laws in 2013 to require 70 per cent of estimated rehabilitation costs made in three annual payments over the first three years. If 70 per cent still seems inadequate, consider Mount Polley: Imperial Metals’ deposit was $14.3 million. The company estimates cleanup at $67 million.

Had the company been charged, penalties could have been up to $8 million, still more than twice any previous mining fine in B.C.

Requiring companies to pay a more proportionate deposit up front would ensure that only mines that could afford the cleanup would move forward in B.C. That appears to be working in Quebec, which mining companies ranked fourth for investment attractiveness last year in an annual survey by the Fraser Institute. B.C. ranked 18th.

We can’t change the damage done by Mount Polley and the Tulsequah Chief, but we can change mining laws moving forward. And we can stop the seeping of heavy metals and mine waste into one of the northwest coast’s top salmon-producing rivers.

Allowing companies to continue polluting water sources, ecosystems and communities is both reckless and outdated.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media, Environment

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