With a vast territory and rich mineral resources, Canada is one of the world’s most important producers of gold, diamonds and oil. Canada’s mining industry is also very developed. Judging from factors such as mineral resources, mining companies, and market control capabilities, Canada is an out-and-out mineral resource powerhouse.
With the rapid development of the mining industry, serious environmental problems inevitably arise. For decades, Canadian waters have carried toxic mine waste into natural ecosystems, onto tribal lands, and across the U.S. border. To that end, a coalition of Indigenous leaders and scientists has emerged and is calling for international conservation.
Appeal from Aboriginal people
During the harsh winter of 2017, Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett of the Canadian province of British Columbia discovered that someone had applied for a mining license. If approved, it would allow applicants to mine the precious mineral on a riverbed in Cranbrook, British Columbia, less than 80 kilometers north of the U.S. border.
The applicant is the former leader of the Xat’sull First Nation (in Canada, the first nation specifically refers to the earliest indigenous people living here – Indians, that is, the North American aborigines and their descendants in today’s Canada). Russ led a group of Aboriginal women. Sellars wasn’t out to get rich, but to make a point: here, mining licenses are too easy to come by and regulations are too thin. “Anyone in the world can take ownership of it as long as they have the internet and a credit card,” she said.
Bevi Silas, a former First Nations chief, and her husband
This lax regulation has in recent years fueled a simmering unease among residents around the province’s mines, which is not limited to nine rivers that flow from here and into four U.S. states. There are at least 12 mining projects along the route. Waterways originating in the Canadian Rockies can carry the residues of mineral extraction on a tortuous international route. They affect First Nations lands and fragile ecosystems. Downstream in some rivers, fish populations have plummeted. Water quality studies have shown pollution levels in these areas are up to 85 times higher than what biologists believe would affect the safety of aquatic life. In the U.S., this could raise red flags and lead to hefty fines, but British Columbia mining companies are not subject to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Now, the province is preparing to approve mining rights for three of the largest mining operations in North America. One of the properties is adjacent to a river course that begins near Cranbrook and ends north of Portland, Oregon, which is already showing signs of mining contamination. As a result, indigenous groups have called for higher levels of protection for these waters.
The Kootenai River begins in the Rocky Mountains above Lake Louise in Banff National Park, British Columbia, Canada, flows south into Montana, USA, curves into the Idaho Panhandle, and finally returns to British Columbia, with Columbia River confluence. Like other rivers in the Pacific Northwest, the Kootenai was once rich in pelagic salmon and steelhead, as well as some marijuana redfish and white sturgeon, an ancient endangered fish.
One of five large mines in British Columbia’s Elk Valley
The first people to settle in the Kootenai Valley probably arrived about 10,000 years ago. The ancestors of these Ketunasa peoples were semi-nomadic people who slept in teepees, wove pine bark baskets, spoke a distinctive language and depended on the rivers there. Today, they are represented in the Ketunaxa Tribe in British Columbia, the Kootenai Tribe in Idaho, and the Salish and Kootenai Union Tribes in Montana.
”Our bread and butter are our resources,” said Rich Jensen, director of natural resources for the Salish and Kootenai Union Tribes in Montana
. Beginning on a reservation on the southern shore of Montana’s largest freshwater lake), the Salish and Kootenai Confederate tribes have transformed themselves into a bulwark against environmental degradation on their ancestral lands. They established a robust forestry department to manage the vast forest area and established populations of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and elk, which have now migrated to Idaho. They reintroduced trumpeter swans, which seemed to have disappeared, and re-established the National Bison Ranch, which is home to more than 400 animals.
Miners first came to Ketunaxa in the 1850s, after the gold rush. These early prospectors mined and camped with little regard for the Aboriginal people or the local environment. “They describe it as a land of milk and honey, but what they see is how much money they can make,” Silas said.
By the 1960s, established mining companies began mining the first large mines along the Elk River. The Elk River is a tributary that joins the Kootenai River north of Lake Kookanusa in British Columbia. Today, four active open pit mines (plus one closed mine) dot the Elk Valley, producing about 21 million tons of coal a year. Teck Resources Ltd., which owns these deposits, is one of the largest hard rock mining companies in British Columbia and Canada.
British Columbia’s mines produce more copper and coal (used to make steel) than any other province in Canada, as well as tons of silver and all the molybdenum in the entire country. Molybdenum is a silvery metal used to make steel and lubricants. In 2017, the mining industry there generated $9.3 billion and employed more than 10,000 people, according to the British Columbia Mining Association. The economics of the industry help local people, including many Aboriginal people. But those gains have come at a cost, locally and elsewhere. In the early 2000s, proposals to develop deposits in the upper reaches of Kouka Noosa and Flathead loomed over the hard-won environmental achievements of the Salish and Kootenai allied tribes, who sought to participate in the approval process. “We’re not against all mining. We’re against mining that pollutes the natural resources of Indigenous territories, and we’re not going to sit around and wait for that to happen,” Jansen said.
Pollution beyond imagination
In 2013, the Ministry of Mines approved Teck to expand its mine at Lane Creek mine in the Elk Valley, advancing its goal of developing eight new mines and expanding another nine by 2015. Even then, however, pollution levels in the lower Elk River were significantly higher than naturally occurring levels. “From a scientific and data point of view, these mines shouldn’t even be considered right now,” says biologist Ai Ai, a biologist at the Flathead Lake Biological Station in Montana, who works on behalf of the Salish and Kootenai Union tribes. Lynn Sexton said. Of course any substantive case against upstream development must be based on a scientific understanding of its impact, for which the federation started collecting data. With this data, tribes can also establish a baseline for Kootenai’s water quality and set their own boundaries, or standards.
Sexton has been working along the Flathead River for 14 years, comparing the two rivers — the heavily mined Elk River and the hitherto untapped Flathead — collecting water samples and bugs , comparing population diversity and abundance in different waters. “In the process, we’ve discovered that pollutants travel farther down the watershed than we thought. They can impact every aspect of life in riverine communities,” she said.
In the Elk River, Sexton found three A pollutant that exceeds a health threshold. One natural element in particular, known as selenium, which leaches out of weathered rocks, is considered particularly problematic. Recent studies have found that when it works its way through the food chain, it can be quite dangerous. It can threaten life in lakes at levels as small as 0.8 milligrams. Fish with abnormal levels of selenium may be born without gill plates and with other malformations, which can also lead to malformed eggs and reproductive failure.
Digging deeper for ecological details, Sexton found 72 species of algae in the untapped Flathead waters, but only 12 in the Elk waters. “They are the driving force of all life in the river,” she said. Perhaps for this reason, the biodiversity of the Elk River appears to have been significantly affected. The Elk River had far fewer stoneflies and caddisflies than the Flathead River, and mayflies that thrive in disturbed environments fared better than other mayflies. Biologists noticed that selenium was affecting the entire Kootenai system, including Lake Kouka Noosa and even the Kootenai Tribe in Idaho 90 kilometers downstream. For years, the Kootenai Tribe has struggled to restore dwindling white sturgeon.
The main Tarsequa mine in northwestern British Columbia, Canada, operated for less than a decade before closing in 1957. More than 60 years later, it’s still leaking hazardous materials into the Taku River basin, which empties into southern Alaska and the Pacific Ocean.
In 2014, British Columbia approved Teck Corporation’s Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, which establishes water quality goals for selenium and other mineralized contaminants. According to Tektronix executive Dale Steves, the company has spent more than $1 billion implementing the plan. “Our plan is working,” he added.
But in 2019, the company hopes to expand the Fort River project to North America’s largest coal mine, where research shows downstream western cutthroat trout have declined 93% since 2017.
Tektronix now operates two water treatment facilities, with more planned or under construction, which are expected to treat more than 53 million liters of sewage a day, nearly triple its 2020 capacity, Steves said .
Cutthroat trout numbers fell 93 percent from 2017 to 2019, according to a study of Elk Valley near Banff National Park and four active mines.
Largest tailings dam failure
The implementation of the environmental protection program and the development of the mining sector are both under the responsibility of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation (the department changed its name in November 2020 from “petroleum resources” to “low carbon innovation”.). The ministry’s director of communications, Megan McRae, said the ministry had now taken substantial action to improve mining regulation and strengthen enforcement. But critics say there are too many risks to monitor with 13 mines still in operation, and hundreds more permanently or temporarily closed that could leak harmful chemicals.
”There’s a lack of management. At the end of the day, the government doesn’t have the money to do that,” said Nikki Skus, co-founder of the B.C. Mining Law Reform Network, which advocates for stricter mining regulations, as it prepares to map abandoned mining areas in the province Skuss quickly discovered that this information was not available through the government. Her team worked with a trust company, which cost about $16,000.
The Kootenai Tribe faced similar setbacks when trying to understand the threat the Elk Valley mines might pose to their waters. Most of the water quality and ecological data is collected by mining companies and report their findings to the province. Sometimes it takes years for this information to become public.
“In the U.S., agencies are working together to understand pollution, but if we want to understand what’s happening at the border, it’s only through Tektronix, because they have the data,” Sexton said. Communities from Montana to Alaska are wondering what might be floating downstream.
”The way these mines are built and managed, it’s really not a ‘what if’ question,” said Amelia Marchand, manager of the Environmental Trust Fund for the Tribal Alliance in Colville, Wash., about the risk of accidental disaster. , but rather a question of ‘when’.” Due to the lack of consultation with the British Columbia government, she fears that if the planned major expansion of the copper mine on the upper Simikameen River goes awry, the Colville people find It’s too late.
In 2014, the tailings pond of the Polishan copper-gold mine in Canada collapsed. The reason for the dam failure was that the foundation damage caused the embankment to rotate and slide. The volume of the tailings liquid released was 23 million cubic meters, and the liquid flowed along the valley. Flowed 9 kilometers downstream.
Concerned Canadians have filed a 25,000-signature petition in a British Columbia court seeking legal action following the Polly Hill mine disaster.
These fears became even more real on August 4, 2014, when the tailings pond at the Mount Polly copper-gold mine in central British Columbia failed. The accident resulted in the outflow of about 23 million cubic meters of waste liquid. It was the largest tailings dam failure in Canadian history.
”We’ve been worried about Mount Polly, but we didn’t expect that something we didn’t want to happen would happen. I’m shocked, I can’t believe it,” said Silas, who lives near Williams Lake.
People like Scoos The mining reformer has long called for a strong fiscal safeguards system to ensure taxpayers are not left behind when cleaning up contaminated sites before disaster strikes or mining companies go bankrupt. The total liability of all mines exceeds $1.7 billion, according to the auditor general’s estimates, and the ministry has acquired financial securities of less than half that amount.
Critics say that when the province does take action on violations, it also does so lazily. For example, British Columbia ordered Teck to pay $48 million for failing to adequately treat water downstream from the Fortin River coal mine. While the company was found to be in breach every year between 2012 and 2019, the fine was only for 2012. Sexton believes that this history of non-compliance will thwart Teck’s request to expand the Fortin River coal mine, but the project appears to be continuing.
work together to protect the environment
Toronto-based Seabridge Gold is mining the world’s largest copper and gold mine on the upper Unook River northwest of the Kootenai Basin. The Unook River empties into the Pacific Ocean near Ketchikan, Alaska. Seabridge Gold has carried out a 6-year environmental assessment, monitoring water quality along the Unook coast since 2007 and has proposed building a state-of-the-art water treatment plant. The project will also dig one of the largest man-made holes on Earth and build one of the tallest dams in North America.
Iskut River in British Columbia. Red is sediment downstream of the Chris Mine.
To opponents of the project, the failure of the Polly Hill Dam and the persistently elevated selenium levels below Elk Valley prove that industry’s assurances cannot come at the expense of some of the most pristine Chinook salmon habitat remaining on the planet.
After years of work by Silas and others, agencies in Alaska, Montana and nearby states are responding. Since 2017, they’ve spent more than $7 million monitoring and documenting pollutants in transboundary rivers, hoping to influence B.C.’s pro-mining agenda. The Kootenai Tribe in Idaho has been trying to save endangered white sturgeon. In 2020, with the support of the Kootenai Tribe, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality completed a six-year effort to develop new water quality standards for the Kootenai River and Lake Kookanosa. In Washington state, the Colville Tribal Confederation is working with upstream First Nations to develop their own water quality standards. Twenty-five state lawmakers recently wrote to British Columbia Governor John Hogan calling for better regulation of cross-border mining.
The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation has also shown a willingness to do so. On the recommendation of the Auditor-General, a Mine Survey Unit was established to enforce the regulations. The company is also investing $16 million over three years to hire 65 security and law enforcement officers.
Through a series of efforts to clean up British Columbia’s environmental pollution while continuing to mine precious metals that can be synthesized into steel and produce renewable energy to power the province’s continued economic prosperity. But for Silas, who isn’t calling for an outright cessation of mining, the updates are just another chapter in a story that’s been playing out since the gold rush. “Most people see the world as a triangle. Indigenous people see it as a circle, everything is connected.” When asked if mining could be done responsibly in British Columbia, Silas said, “Never No one has really tried it.”