A catastrophe waiting to happen on the Similkameen River unless we act now

A catastrophe waiting to happen on the Similkameen River unless we act now

Conservation Northwest / Jan 14, 2021 / British Columbia, First Nations, Healthy Watersheds, Mining

The Similkameen watershed is impacted by the ghosts of a century of mining, with more than 50 abandoned mines throughout. The Copper Mountain Mine is so enormous that you can easily see it on Google Earth without much zooming in.


Unfamiliar to many Washingtonians, the Similkameen River is what I think of as the Methow of British Columbia. It drains the northeast slopes of the North Cascades, flowing east through the lovely orchard hamlets of Keremeos and Cawston before crossing the border near Nighthawk and Loomis, then joining the Okanogan River at Oroville in north-central Washington.

You may have heard about the defunct Enloe Dam. For many years we’ve been leaders on efforts to have the dam removed to restore the river to its natural state and support ecological and tribal cultural values. But what concerns me most is the history and expanded threat to this majestic river from the mining of gold and copper. I am working on this as part of our Healthy Watersheds Campaign.

A map showing mining sites in BC in watersheds that flow into U.S. states.

The Similkameen watershed is impacted by the ghosts of more than a century of mining, with more than 50 abandoned mines throughout. Several mineral deposits remain under active extraction, including the behemoth Copper Mountain Mine, just west of Princeton. This mine is so enormous that you can easily see it on Google Earth without much zooming in.

Its legacy is of pollutants in the river, including unsafe levels of arsenic and other metals. The pollution seeps from impoundments of the mining sludge and even directly from the mines themselves, entering the river and flowing downstream. My friends of the Lower Similkameen Indian Band (LSIB) have for decades refrained from eating the river’s fish despite the cultural importance of these foods. This pollution is an injustice but also merely a foretaste of the absolute catastrophe that the mine may be building towards. This catastrophe would roll downriver to surely impact the people and environment of Washington, rippling down the Columbia River system, unless we succeed in blocking it.

I have a particular stake in this place and its protection, as I’ve been treated almost like family by people of the LSIB. I was first introduced in 1995, when I received a call from Glen Douglas asking my help in evaluating the environmental risks associated with the expansion of a local ski area that the Band was opposing. Glen was an LSIB elder and a veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. On my visit there, Glen introduced me to Dixon Terbasket, who at the time served as Band Manager and has been like a brother to me ever since; we shared many adventures and each raised our respective two daughters of the same ages.

On a tour with LSIB elders of culturally important sites in north-central Washington. Photo: Mitch Friedman

Immediately after we at Conservation Northwest won our historic campaign to permanently protect 25,000 acres of wildlands on the Loomis State Forest, I worked with the leadership of the LSIB to secure designation of the 75,000 acre Snowy Mountain Provincial Park, which abuts the Loomis on the north side of the border. This wasn’t easy for the Band, as it had both sovereignty and economic implications. Conservation Northwest committed $250,000 to help the Band invest in a future to benefit from the park. The biggest slice of that commitment seeded construction of the Band’s traditionally-designed community center, which opened in 2015.

I also organized a trip to Victoria on which some of our Loomis donors who were leaders in high-tech investing met with B.C. peers and government leaders to build relationships and discuss the links between conservation, regional quality of life and economic opportunity. Snowy Mountain was a focus.

Together, our success resulted in more than 100,000 acres of state and provincial wildlands, almost all of them in the Similkameen Watershed, conserved in a key area connected to the Pasayten Wilderness and North Cascades further west, also critical habitat for Canada lynx. Since then we’ve worked closely with Lower Similkameen Indian Band leaders on the establishment of the pending South Okanagan-Similkameen National Park Reserve.

The point of that little narrative detour is that the Similkameen, both the place and the communities, mean a great deal to me. So while we at Conservation Northwest have only a thin history in issues of mining and river pollution, we can’t stand aside from a horrific scenario that will take monumental effort to prevent.

Aerial Photo of Tailing Pond at Copper Mountain Mining Corporation Similkameen Princeton BC Canada. Photo Edgar Bullon.

The above photo shows the Copper Mountain Mine, with a massive tailings pond below it. It’s impounded on either side by two earthen dams. The worst environmental disaster in B.C. history was the 2014 collapse of the tailings impoundment at the Mount Polley Mine. Its dam was only 40 meters high, compared to the 150 meters at Copper Mountain.

Some people still think of B.C. as progressive and green, but that reputation is not well deserved. It turns out that B.C. has more tailings spills than any nation but China. The province’s own expert panel predicts two tailings pond failures every ten years. And as mining waste lasts forever, so must the impoundments to contain them.

As for Copper Mountain Mine, they are proposing a 70 percent expansion of operations, which would require its tailings dams to increase to 260 meters high! There are several factors that can cause such dams to burst, but I’ll trust that to your imagination. Even without bursting, the mine has a terrible record of infractions from polluted seepage it can’t contain even with the size of the present impoundment. And because the Similkameen River crosses the border into Washington, flowing into the major sockeye and Chinook salmon-producing waters of the Okanogan and Columbia, we can’t regard this threat as just a local injustice.

Since September I have been organizing and facilitating a series of Zoom video calls that convene leaders of the Upper and Lower Similkameen Indian Bands, the Colville Confederated Tribes (including CNW board member Amelia Marchand, who directs the Colville Tribe’s Environmental Trust Department), the Okanagan Nation Alliance, plus some technical and legal experts. We are trying to find a path forward together to protect the river and its people from mining interests that, in B.C., hold all the cards. This is part of a broader effort to bring about much-needed regulatory reform of B.C.’s mining industry in general through our Healthy Watersheds Campaign in parnership with Canadian and First Nations allies. In addition to my direct efforts, our campaign includes a contract with Rob Edward, a former Chief of the LSIB.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably expecting a pitch. You’re right, but since our work on this project is funded, I needn’t ask you for donations.

Please remind Governor Inslee of this threat and encourage him to engage. The same goes for state legislators, and we have an action form set up for this purpose.

Copper Mountain in an open pit porphyry mine in British Columbia Canada. It is the third-largest copper mine in Canada. Photo: Ivan Sabo

There is a special relationship between Washington and B.C. and between Governor Inslee and Premier Horgan. In this recent letter, colleagues and I respectfully asked the Governor to use that relationship to compel the Premier to enact needed reforms and to otherwise protect Washington’s people and natural resources from B.C. mining pollution not just in the Similkameen, but also the Skagit and other transboundary rivers.

I don’t mean to suggest that the Governor has been unresponsive. But what we’re asking for is a big deal. Copper Mountain Mine is telling investors that at its expanded level it would have revenues of a billion dollars per decade. This means jobs and taxes for the province as it works to recover from the Covid recession. Premier Horgan certainly knows all this. And for Inslee, there are many priorities of his own on which to ask the Premier’s attention. One of them is battling climate change through alternative energy, which will require a mountain of copper! My point is that we’re asking a lot of our leaders, but for good reason. The Similkameen cannot be sacrificed. Nor can other international rivers flowing into Washington, Idaho, Montana and especially southeast Alaska.

There is some reason for optimism. Premier Horgan and his party were just re-elected overwhelmingly. One of his promises, followed-up in his mandate letter to the Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, is for a new law requiring industrial facilities to post bonds, or financial assurances, to cover the full cost of catastrophic scenarios (presently the Copper Mountain Mine posts a trivial $7 million bond). That requirement of financial assurances is a major objective of our Healthy Watersheds Campaign. But for an operation that can make a billion dollars per decade, bonding alone is not enough to protect the river and its communities, including those on the Washington side of the border. It’s high time that B.C. regulated its mining industry to modern standards. This is why we want to encourage Governor Inslee to put pressure on Premier Horgan. My colleagues and I will certainly continue to do our part.

My relationship with the Lower Similkameen Indian Band and my friends there, and the conservation it has accomplished over these decades, has been one of the great joys and privileges of my life. It reminds me that our work is about not just the land and its wildlife, but also people.

The Similkameen River in fall on the Washington side of the U.S.-Canada border in Okanogan County. Photo: Jessica Kelley.