Mining policy reform needed in British Columbia to protect Washington watersheds

Mining policy reform needed in British Columbia to protect Washington watersheds

Conservation Northwest / Feb 05, 2020 / British Columbia, Healthy Watersheds, Protecting Wildlands

Our new Healthy Watersheds Campaign seeks to strengthen regulations for Canadian mines and reduce threats to downstream ecosystems.


Imagine that today is February 5, 2030, ten years from now. An earthquake in the North Cascades unsettles a massive earthen dam that impounds an even more massive lake of toxic waste from the Copper Mountain mine south of Princeton, British Columbia (B.C.). The dam gives way, releasing tens of millions of cubic meters of contaminated slurry and water to flush down the scenic Similkameen River.

Toxic mud and tailings pond water devastated local ecosystems and runs of sockeye salmon after the 2014 Mount Polley Mine disaster.

Laden with arsenic and other fish-killing pollutants, the river follows its path downstream, eventually crossing the border at Nighthawk, Washington, and on to its confluence with the Okanogan River and eventually the Columbia near Brewster in north-central Washington.

I wish this scenario were unlikely, but it’s not at all. Something very similar happened in 2014, when the tailings impoundment for the Mount Polley mine, in central B.C.’s Cariboo Region, blew out, devastating sockeye salmon runs and habitat in Fraser River tributaries. The cause of that breach was modest, not even an earthquake. The Copper Mountain containment, which is three times higher and already leaky, could similarly give way without much cause or warning.

There has yet to be any compensation or mitigation for the Mount Polley mine disaster, now five years on. If such an event polluted American waters downstream of Canadian mines, we have no assurance that we’d fare any better; that remediation, mitigation or compensation would occur.

Forests and watersheds have yet to recover after the 2014 Mount Polley Mine disaster. Stronger regulations and financial assurances are needed to protect against future mining spills in transboundary watersheds. Photo: J. Mack

We’ve joined with Canadian groups, First Nations and other allies to launch a Healthy Watersheds Campaign to fix this vulnerability, calling for mining reform and financial assurances to protect downstream watersheds, fish and wildlife, and communities. 

Join us in taking action!

A map showing some of the mining leases in southwest British Columbia near the international border.

There are hundreds of existing mines (and tailings ponds) across B.C., where the mining industry has veritable free reign and veto power. According to a report by the B.C. provincial government, in 2019 there were 33 mining exploration projects underway within a radius of about 60 miles of the province’s southern border. Many of these projects are just north of Washington state, others are in the upper reaches of rivers that drain into Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

For us in Washington, along with the Similkameen we need to be worried about the Skagit, Kettle, and Columbia rivers. You’ve probably heard a lot about the threat of mining in the so-called Donut Hole of the Skagit Headwaters, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You can read more about the issue here.

Fortunately the B.C. Government might consider a partial fix to this huge problem, in the form of a requirement of financial assurances. This means the government would basically require a large bond from that mining corporation that operates or proposes a mine. That bond would help cover the liabilities if and when accidents occur.

The Skagit Headwaters is one area under threat from lax B.C. mining regulations. Photo: The Wilderness Committee

The B.C. government has made a promise to review and update some of its financial assurances policies.  Premier Horgan should make good on this promise and ensure that particular attention be paid to projects in watersheds that flow downstream into the United States.

Working with elected leaders and tribes, we are taking advantage of this window of opportunity to push Washington state to demand accountability from Canadian mining companies through mining reform.

Washington has so much at stake here, with so many of our premier rivers vulnerable to waste from mines in B.C. It’s like your upwind neighbor burning trash (or dumping oil) on your property line. So we’re asking our elected leaders to inform their B.C. counterparts of their concern, and urge that legislation be passed to require financial assurances.

Washington Representative Debra Lekanoff is leading the charge with a memorial in the State House. Governor Jay Inslee and other statewide elected leaders should communicate their concern to B.C. Premier Horgan. The governing council of a number of Washington tribes are also considering making their voices heard on this matter.

You can help by taking action to let the Governor and your state representatives know that you’d rest easier if action is taken to address this risk to our healthy watersheds.

For healthy watersheds,

Mitch Friedman,

Executive Director

Devastation in the Fraser River Watershed after the 2014 Mount Polley Mine disaster. The mine is operated by Imperial Metals.