Feds Fall Short on New Regulations to Protect Water from Mine Toxins – Proposed New Metal Mine Effluent Regulations Finally Published

Ottawa — After almost a decade in review, the federal government has released proposed new regulations to control the pollution being released into Canada's waterways from 93 metal mines across the country, but few are offering congratulations. Environmental groups who have been part of the process since the early '90s say that Environment Canada has failed to deliver on a commitment to "modernize" the regulation, and that water and fish will still not be protected by the only modestly improved rules.

Critics cite the failure of the new Metal Mining Effluent Regulations to lower the levels of toxic metals that will be permitted to be discharged as one of the key failures, as well as Environment Canada's refusal to include an important test for acute lethality to water fleas (Daphnia magna) in the regulations.

"It is unacceptable that allowable levels for arsenic, copper, lead, nickel and zinc have remained completely unchanged since 1977," said Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada, comparing the Canadian standards to those in the US, where the allowable levels for the metals are much lower. "Environment Canada's own consultants identified available technology that would produce much cleaner effluent, but the federal government chose to go with standards that could be more easily met by Canadian companies."

According to Burkhard Mausberg of the Canadian Environmental Defence Fund, a participant in the review of the regulations, "The proposed lead and cyanide limits are five times higher than technically and economically feasible." Other potentially toxic metals that are common in mine effluent, such as cadmium and mercury, are still not on the list of regulated contaminants.

It is disappointing that this opportunity to show leadership, and to respond to demands by Canadians that the Government take bold action to protect precious water resources, is being lost. The new regulations took almost eight years to develop through a series of consultations with the mining industry, aboriginal organisations, environmental organisations, and provincial and territorial governments. Described by Environment Canada throughout as an exercise to "modernize" the 1977 regulations, the review went into a two year hiatus while the federal government completed its own internal review of the economic impacts of the new regulations. A final report describes the new regulations as based on "demonstrated technology," providing a standard which is "currently obtainable by the majority of mines," and as mirroring existing requirements in Ontario and Québec where most metal mines are located. The new regulations do not spur technological innovation.

Important improvements to the regulations are the inclusion of all gold mines, the inclusion of cyanide as a regulated substance, a new requirement that the effluent not be acutely lethal to rainbow trout (meaning that 50% of the trout must survive 96 hours exposure), and a new requirement for expanded environmental monitoring. However, the regulations provide no legal tool to require site-specific remedies should monitoring results show it to be necessary. Environment Canada has also announced a commitment to more regular reporting, but this will not be required by the regulations.

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For more information please contact:
Catherine Coumans, MiningWatch Canada (613) 569-3439
Brennain Lloyd, Northwatch (705) 497-0373
Burkhard Mausberg, Canadian Environmental Defence Fund (416) 323-9521