Changes Coming to National Mine Effluent Regulations

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

Despite sweeping changes to key parts of the Fisheries Act in last spring’s omnibus budget bill, Section 36, which deals with the release of “deleterious” substances, remained intact. That means the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER) which fall under Section 36 have also remained as they were – at least for now. Changes are likely coming, as the budget included “$1 million over two years to expand Metal Mining Effluent Regulations to non-metal diamond and coal mines.”[1] In its response to a petition MiningWatch filed with the office of the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, Environment Canada also indicated its intention to complete a multi-stakeholder consultation process on the ten-year review of the MMER. We have been told that the internal review process is underway, but so far have had no indication when and how the multi-stakeholder consultation will be ‘rolled out’.

The inclusion of coal and diamond mining in the MMER would, in the government’s words, provide greater “certainty” for industry[2] – but would it provide greater environmental protection? Not likely with the way the regulations work now. This is because the MMER take a very broad protection for fish-bearing waters and narrows the force of the Fisheries Act to only ten parameters. So long as a mine is within the prescribed limits for nine water quality parameters, and the effluent is not acutely toxic to rainbow trout (passing this test requires having at least half of the fish exposed to effluent survive for 96 hours) the effluent is compliant. This reduces the regulatory burden but, as two national assessments of the environmental monitoring downstream of mines have shown, does not ensure the protection of fish.[3] Being included in the MMER will also give coal and diamond mines access to Schedule 2 of the MMER – the list that re-classifies natural fish-bearing water bodies as “Tailings Impoundment Areas”, i.e. the loophole that allows lakes, streams, and wetlands to be turned into mine waste dumps.

In order to better understand the impacts of specific mines on downstream aquatic ecosystems, MiningWatch has used the access to information process to acquire environmental effects monitoring reports from eleven mines across Canada. Over the winter we will be reviewing these reports and incorporating our findings into a response to the upcoming consultation. Through our networks with environmental and water conservation groups we will build a collective response to the 10 year review that insists that the MMER be strengthened, with more parameters included and allowable limits reduced to levels more likely to protect downstream ecosystems.

[3] Environment Canada 2007 and 2011 National Assessments of Environmental Effects Monitoring Program,