Canadian Lakes and Streams at Risk of Being Converted to “Tailings Impoundment Areas”

Jamie Kneen Communications and Outreach Coordinator responsible for: strategic research, social media, and public engagement; our Africa program, environmental assessment, and uranium mining.

One of MiningWatch Canada’s key areas of work in 2008 and that will be continuing in 2009 has been our efforts to curtail the destruction of natural water bodies for the creation of tailings impoundments (i.e. waste dumps). Though contrary to both the intent and the letter of the Fisheries Act, exemptions are being granted to companies that apply for a regulatory amendment to the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER). Following an assessment of alternatives and public consultation, water bodies can be listed on Schedule 2 of the MMER and become reclassified as tailings impoundment areas.

In 2002, when this loophole in one of our oldest and strongest pieces of environmental legislation was created, it was under the guise of bringing existing mines into compliance. New mines would not use Schedule 2, it was argued, because it wasn’t necessary and because the regulatory amendment process would be too onerous. However, with rising costs and fewer high grade ore bodies left to mine, the industry has found that seeking a Schedule 2 amendment can be much more economical. The costs of consultants and staff time to go through the amendment process is much less than the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars saved by not having to build a tailings impoundment.

In 2008, four more water bodies were added to Schedule 2. Two of these are previously damaged lakes receiving wastes from operating mines; the others are healthy lakes in Nunavut. Eight proposed mine projects have indicated their preference to use Schedule 2. Another Schedule 2 project, Kemess North, in northern British Columbia, was rejected by an environmental assessment panel where MiningWatch was an active intervener, and another, the Red Chris mine, also in northern British Columbia, is on hold due to MiningWatch’s legal challenge of its environmental assessment (see above).

But wasn’t the process for applying for the regulatory amendment supposed to be too onerous for industry to bother with? Apparently not! From MiningWatch’s perspective one of the key weaknesses in the process is the consideration of alternatives. The current practice is to use an approach called Multiple Accounts Analysis. This method scores various alternatives in a comparative table and seems to objectively weigh different options. The technique is, however, very susceptible to manipulation and bias depending on the values assigned to the different factors. While some factors are relatively easy to objectively determine – financial costs, for example – others are much more subject to judgement: significance of social or environmental impacts, for example. In examining the Multiple Accounts Analysis for Vale Inco’s proposal to use Sandy Pond to receive waste from a proposed hydrometallurgical nickel processing plant, MiningWatch found that several factors were heavily and unjustifiably weighted in favour of the predetermined preferred (and cheaper) option – dumping the waste into Sandy Pond.

In order to continue challenging the industry and federal government on this issue, and to support First Nations in their position on mine developments, MiningWatch has applied for participant funding in two upcoming federal environmental assessments – the Mt. Milligan and the Prosperity projects in British Columbia, both of which are open pit gold-copper mine proposals that plan to use Schedule 2 to reclassify natural water bodies as waste dumps. We have also been facilitating a national coalition of environmental and First Nation groups that are actively educating their members and lobbying against the practice. The issue received national news coverage on CBC’s The National, resulting in one of the biggest media blitzes in MiningWatch’s history.