Northern Exposure: Growing threats from BC Mines to Washington waters

Northern Exposure: Growing threats from BC Mines to Washington waters

Conservation Northwest / Apr 01, 2021 / British Columbia, Healthy Watersheds

By Mitch Friedman, Executive Director

I’ve written here about the need for us to pay attention to the transboundary Similkameen River, where current and likely increasing levels of pollution from mining activity in British Columbia is harming water quality in Washington.

And now a recent map released by SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, located in Northwest B.C., reveals a whopping 173 coal and metal mines, from exploration to active to abandoned, across British Columbia. According to SkeenaWild, “…many (of these mines) seem likely to have some contamination concern, given their location and deposit geology” and “highlights the massive scale of the problem and provides information that has not been made available by the Ministry of Energy & Mines.”

The bad news for us? 34 of those sites in B.C. are within 50 miles of the Washington border. Join us in taking action by contacting Premier John Horgan and Governor Jay Inslee

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

Pollution doesn’t stop at the border

British Columbia has a notorious history with polluting downstream U.S. states. The most egregious example is from the smelter at Trail, where B.C. was forced to compensate Washington farmers for crops lost to airborne sulphur dioxide.

A future example we want desperately to avoid is the pending application by Imperial Metals to explore copper and gold mining in the Upper Skagit River Watershed, or “Skagit Headwaters“. Heavy metals from mining would pollute the river, harming Puget Sound’s foremost salmon river, essential for southern resident orca whales. Imperial Metals is infamously responsible for the catastrophic failure of the tailings dam at the Mount Polley Mine in 2014.

Following the Mount Polly disaster, B.C.’s provincial Auditor General (AG) produced a scathing report describing the sad state of the province’s mining regulations. The report was highly critical of provincial efforts in monitoring and enforcement, inadequate financial assurances, the poor siting of tailings facilities and a host of other shortcomings.

The province has addressed some of the recommendations in the AG’s report, including launching a collaborative compliance and enforcement division, but there are still significant gaps in how the province manages monitoring and pollution at old mine sites. An analysis by the B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council shows that much more needs to be done to improve the safety of tailings dams and safeguard downstream communities and the environment.

A provincial government expert panel warned of an average of two dam failures every decade if mining companies aren’t forced to change. What’s downstream? Us. Threats we recently highlighted in this three minute video.

So all of this brings us back to the sobering map by SkeenaWild. It details how the scope and frequency of aquatic monitoring at mines they list is largely left to the mining companies, and there’s little pressure on mines to cleanup or even maintain closed sites. Basically BC is a paper tiger and mining corporations call the shots. We in Washington state get no benefits from B.C. mining but plenty of risk and harm.

The time is right for Washington leaders to encourage their British Columbia counterparts to strengthen regulation of mining.

The province, is pursuing a strong mandate to update policies that could require full bonding for mine operators and take more seriously the precautionary principle and polluter paying their costs. Senator Jesse Salomon and 24 of his Olympia legislator colleagues sent message to B.C. Premier John Horgan this month.

It’s time for Governor Inslee to make his voice heard, standing up for Washington against the mess that is BC’s mining policy.

The Copper Mountain Mine in southern British Columbia in the Similkameen River watershed. Photo: Benjamin Drummond and LightHawk.