Federal Timidity on Tough Regulations to Limit Mine Pollution Places Communities, Environment at Risk
OTTAWA — Proposed changes to rules governing mining pollution are weak and will not reverse a troubling legacy of toxic discharges into water that have endangered human health and killed fish, a group monitoring the environmental performance of Canadian mines says.
For almost a decade, Ottawa has promised to revise the 23-year-old regulations, which have proven largely ineffective in halting pollution at several mines across Canada where the spilling or leaking of toxic chemicals has contaminated drinking water and wiped out aquatic life.
In the near quarter century since the regulations, known as the Metal Mining Liquid Effluent Regulations (MMLER) were introduced, not one mining company has been charged as a result of violating its terms, despite as many as one in four active mines being out of compliance with the regulations.
"Everything we've seen strongly suggests that the federal government is prepared to live with a sub-par regulation that will be only marginally better than the previous one," says Joan Kuyek, national coordinator of Mining Watch Canada.
"Canadians should know that under the 'new and improved' regulations a mine effluent that kills half the fish placed in it will get a passing grade, and that highly toxic substances such as mercury and cadmium won't even be on the list of regulated substances. They deserve better."
Kuyek notes that the MMLER has been the subject of no less than 11 different consultations between federal Environment and Fisheries officials, the mining industry, environmental groups, First Nations, and others, since 1992.
Government lawyers are now in the final stages of re-drafting the regulations, which will then be submitted to senior Fisheries and Environment officials for review and approval.
Since the MMLER came into effect, spectacular environmental damages at several mines across Canada have highlighted the need for tough regulations that halt mine-related water pollution.
These include: the spilling of cyanide into the Pic River near the north shore of Lake Superior, which forced the residents of Pic River to install a new water delivery system; the loss of salmon and steelhead on the Tsolum River in British Columbia due to acid mine drainage; the continued leaking of arsenic, cadmium, iron and other harmful contaminants into streams and rivers at the abandoned Kam Kotia mine near Timmins.
"These and other disasters have not only done long-term damage to our waters, but cost taxpayers millions of dollars," Kuyek says. "It's time Ottawa did the right thing and passed tough regulations that are rigorously enforced."
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For further information contact Joan Kuyek at 613-569-3439.
The Metal Mining Liquid Effluent Regulations: Background
Mines pollute. Waste water from the mine and waste rock and tailings (finely ground rock left over from milling the ore taken from the mine) contain toxic metals and chemicals such as copper, cadmium, arsenic, lead, cyanide, mercury and zinc.
Over the past 25 years, the number of operating mines in Canada at any given time has ranged between 103 and 177 mines. Over most of that time, rules governing the pollution from mines, in particular the pollution associated with mining effluent and its impact on water, have been governed by the Metal Mining Liquid Effluent Regulations or MMLER.
In 1993, the federal government set up a process known as the Assessment of the Aquatic Effects of Mining in Canada or AQUAMIN. This was done to "update and strengthen" the MMLER. This initiative was spearheaded by Environment Canada as part of a broader set of environmental commitments made under the federal government's so-called Green Plan.
It was widely recognized that the MMLER was weak in several important areas, and that the thinking behind excluding certain substances from the original list of regulated metals and chemicals was badly outdated.
Since then, there have been a total of 11 different consultations; each aimed at helping the federal government design a new set of regulations.
Copies of the proposed revisions to the regulation were made available to MiningWatch Canada and others late last year. They strongly suggest that the new proposed regulation will be extremely weak in a number of key areas.
First, cyanide is the only new toxic to be added to the list of harmful substances under the MMLER, and the allowable levels for the substances that are regulated remain virtually unchanged from 23 years ago.
Second, other toxic substances that are known to be a problem at many mine sites, such as cadmium and mercury, are not added to the MMLER list in the proposed revisions. This means their presence in mine effluent and receiving waters would not put a mine out of compliance with the regulation.
Third, under the proposed changes to the MMLER mining companies will be required to conduct "acute lethality" tests. Such tests, which place fish into mine effluent and monitor how many of their number die, are an improvement over the existing MMLER which simply sets out limits for the amount of each listed toxic substance that can legally be present in the water.
However, the proposed test has significant problems. Up to half the fish can die in such a test and the mining company will still receive a passing grade. Furthermore, the test is limited to rainbow trout, not fish species native to the stream, river or lake that a mine's effluent is deposited or spills into.
Fourth, the proposed new limits for toxic substances remain virtually unchanged over those of 23 years ago. Because of this, they are not "technology forcing." They don't compel the industry to make the necessary investments in new pollution abatement technology that will eliminate toxins from mine effluent and safeguard the environment.
Fifth, the proposed revisions do take the positive step of allowing for an "Environmental Effects Monitoring" (EEM) program at individual mine sites. In theory this means that if an individual mining operation is consistently damaging the environment a site-specific regulation can be developed to reduce pollution. Unfortunately, there is no legal tool in the regulation that requires a site-specific regulation to be developed and applied when an EEM shows that it is warranted.
Finally, there are ongoing concerns about compliance and enforcement with the existing MMLER, let alone a new one. There has not been a single prosecution under the existing regulation, despite numerous examples of individual mines being out of compliance with it. Also, ongoing evidence of fish habitat loss, a prosecutable offence under the federal Fisheries Act, never seems to trigger charges under the Act. If the federal government cannot deliver on a regulation that is nearly 25 years old, what prospect is there of it delivering on a modernized regulation that is, quite appropriately, somewhat more protective of the environment than its predecessor?
MiningWatch Canada is a Canadian initiative supported by environmental, social justice, aboriginal and labor organizations from across the country. It formed in direct response to industry and government failures to protect the public and the environment from destructive mining practices. It has consistently prompted government and industry to deliver on their sustainability rhetoric by reducing mining-related risks to public health, water and air quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and communities. It aims to:
- ensure that mineral development practices are consistent with the goals of sustainable communities and ecological health;
- strengthen technical and strategic skills within communities and organizations faced with impacts of mineral development;
- impose appropriate terms and conditions on mining and in some cases prevent the development of projects that would adversely affect areas of ecological, economic and cultural significance; and
- advocate policies to improve the efficiency and reduce the risks of mineral development.
A properly revised MMLER would help to meet some of those objectives.