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National Pollutant Release Inventory Drops Exemption for Mining

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

On February 25, 2006, the Canada Gazette published a “Notice with Respect to Substances in the National Pollutant Release Inventory for 2006”. In “General Criteria”, Section 3(1)(h), the mining exemption now only applies to “pits and quarries”.

In Canada, the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) is the means by which Canadians can get information about the pollutants transferred by companies and released to the environment in their communities. It helps government and other groups by identifying priorities for action to protect health and the environment in Canada. It is part of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA).

Since the NPRI was introduced in 1998, the criteria for reporting to NPRI have exempted facilities from reporting substances listed in Parts 1A through 3 of the NPRI, “if the only source or use of that substance is from mining, but not the further processing or other use of mined materials.”

For a number of years now, a struggle has been taking place in Canada between the mining industry and organizations that care about public health to get mining wastes and tailings included in the NPRI. The mining industry argues that low concentrations of toxins in waste rock and tailings occur in nature and are therefore not “releases to the environment”.

Mining is the only sector that does not have to report on-site disposal of CEPA toxics to the NPRI. The industry claims it is only “storing” them.

The industry also argues that the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations capture releases from mine sites. In reality, the MMER reports releases of only a limited number of substances to water, and only after they have left the company property. The industry also argues that it is one more “onerous” administrative burden. We argue that it is a cost of doing business.

MiningWatch, Pollution Probe, the STORM Coalition, the Pembina Institute and other groups argue that removing the rock from the ground and crushing it exposes dangerous substances to air and water, and disposes of them in waste rock heaps and tailings impoundments which have to be monitored in perpetuity. Their effects are cumulative and toxic, and the public has the right to know about them.

In 2002, Environment Canada decided that the mining exemption had to be re-examined as part of a review of all NPRI exemptions. Environment Canada says that “Among the drivers are the need to identify Criteria Air Contaminant emissions from mining sources, to harmonize the NPRI and Ontario’s Regulation 127, to improve comparability with the US Toxics Release Inventory, and to simplify and integrate greenhouse gases, Statistics Canada and NPRI reporting requirements.”

A NPRI Multi-Stakeholder Working Group was set up by Environment Canada to begin dealing with the issue, and a special “mining sub-group” was formed. The Canadian Environmental Network named four delegates to the sub-group: John Jackson, Anna Tilman, Marilyn Crawford and Joan Kuyek.

At the end of this process, it was agreed to remove the mining exemption. With the end of the mining exemption, there is not longer any regulatory bar to reporting on CEPA toxics.

Digging up metals generates enormous piles of rock, which contain trace amounts of potentially harmful substances. As an example, one gold wedding ring produces anywhere from 6 to 30 tonnes of waste rock and tailings. Waste rock is unprocessed rock that has been broken into pieces to facilitate its removal; tailings are the processed finely ground rock created by extracting ore. In Canada, they are usually highly acidic, leaching sulphuric acid into waters and aquifers. They can contain arsenic, mercury, copper, nickel, selenium and other toxic substances. Tailings (also called slimes) are usually kept in impoundments of immense size, which have to be monitored in perpetuity. In Canada, mining creates more than 2 million tones of waste rock and tailings a day.

In the United States, the Toxics Release Inventory, or TRI, plays the same role. When mining was added to the TRI in 1997, the mining industry suddenly moved to the top of the list of polluters, contributing over half the 7.77 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released to the environment. Most of the pollutants came from the waste rock and tailings that are created at the mine site.

However, in 2002, because of lawsuits by Barrick Gold and the U.S. National Mining Association, most of the pollutants from waste rock were removed from the inventory. A US federal court ruled that many substances need not be reported if they make up less than 1 percent of the weight of the waste rock pile. But those trace amounts add up to 1.5 billion pounds in the United States.