Washington Legislators to British Columbia Premier: Better regulate industrial mines threatening international rivers

Washington Legislators to British Columbia Premier: Better regulate industrial mines threatening international rivers

Conservation Northwest / Mar 31, 2021 / British Columbia, Healthy Watersheds, Mining, News Releases

Letter from Washington State Legislators to B.C. Premier John Horgan highlights transboundary threats from industrial mines and tailings dams, calls for reform.

OLYMPIA, WA – Inadequate oversight of mining operations in southern British Columbia and a lack of financial accountability for clean-up costs is a growing threat to communities and the environment in both B.C. and across the border in Washington state, and needs urgent attention.

This threat is highlighted in a new letter sent to B.C. Premier John Horgan from 25 Washington State Legislators who call for policy reforms to protect transboundary watersheds, fish and wildlife and downstream communities and tribes.

Copper Mountain mine, British Columbia, looking south towards U.S. Border. Photo: Benjamin Drummond and LightHawk. Click here for larger photo.

The letter points out that there are at least a dozen operating mines or mining exploration projects in the headwaters of rivers that flow from B.C. into Washington state (click here or scroll down for a map), and warns that a tailings dam breach at one of these upstream operations—like the one that occurred at the Mount Polley Mine in 2014 causing Canada’s worst-ever environmental disaster—could have major negative environmental and economic impacts on Washington.

“Salmon recovery knows no boundaries. Both the U.S. and Canada have been working to manage and restore salmon runs, but this mining proposal threatens to undo work that has been done,” said state Senator Jesse Salomon, who organized the letter.

“Ecological needs do not recognize political jurisdictions. But political jurisdictions should recognize cross-border ecological needs and the effects of their decisions,” said Sen. Salomon.

Similar arguments were recently made by a hydrogeologist and a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes in this three-minute video, and more than 584 Washingtonians sent approximately 2,080 messages to state lawmakers this session in supporter of the letter.

“We fully support and appreciate the Legislators’ call,” said Mitch Friedman, Executive Director of Conservation Northwest. “British Columbia has tinkered with mining reform for far too long without getting down to the real issues: safety of communities and protection of the environment, both of which are under threat by mines in southwestern B.C. and elsewhere in the province.”

Friedman recently organized a letter from eleven conservation groups and Seattle City Light to Governor Jay Inslee calling on the governor to act through a message to B.C. leadership similar to that from the state lawmakers.

A series of op-eds in The Seattle Times from tribal leaders, fishermen and conservationists have also called attention to mining proposals in the Skagit Headwaters and the lack of sufficient regulations and financial assurances governing mining in the province, and growing threats to U.S. states downstream.

The transboundary region shared by B.C. and the U.S. has become a dangerous hotspot for pollution and chemical spills from the mining industry due to legacy, existing, and proposed mines in the areas upstream of the four bordering states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. Many of these mines are in the headwaters of major rivers that provide critical habitat for salmon and wildlife.

For example, a proposed expansion of the Copper Mountain Mine on the transboundary Similkameen River in southcentral B.C. would increase production by 70 percent and raise the tailings dam to 260 metres, a 73 percent increase and 220 metres higher than Mount Polley’s tailings dam. Maps and more information are available in this fact sheet.

Tailings dam and pond, Copper Mountain Mine, southern British Columbia. Photo: Benjamin Drummond and LightHawk. Click here for larger photo.

According to B.C. government inspectors’ reports, Copper Mountain is a repeat offender when it comes to non-compliance with the regulations designed to protect B.C.’s environment.

The Washington State Legislators’ letter dated March 23, 2021 states that both Canada and the U.S. are obliged to honor the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty, which prohibits pollution on one side of the boundary that would cause injury to life or property on the other side.

But, as the letter points out, that’s only possible if B.C. adopts strict regulations, consistent inspections and financial assurances including full bonding for mines to ensure financial resources are available to clean up when they close or following a disaster like Mount Polley.

A recent audit of B.C.’s stricter mine tailings storage regulations brought in after Mount Polley is expected to show serious shortcomings in how government inspectors ensure mining companies are complying with the revised rules, which raises even more questions about the safety of tailings storage facilities at mine sites throughout the province.

“The safety of communities and the health of the environment in B.C. and Washington state are under serious threat from under-regulated mines and tailings dams, and it’s time for the Horgan government to act,” said Friedman.


A map showing contaminated mine sites in southern British Columbia near the U.S.-Canada border. Click for a larger version. Map: Skeena Wild and Conservation Northwest