Balancing the Books: The Hidden Costs of Mining

Jamie Kneen

National Program Co-Lead

On November 23, 1999, the mining industry will hold its annual lobby on Parliament Hill. Emphasizing the role they play in Canada's economy, they will demand more government subsidy - through tax exemptions, grants and decreased user fees, access to as much land for as long as possible and weakened environmental regulations. But the mining industry's lobbyists and public relations experts are not telling the whole story.

At MiningWatch Canada, we would like to advance some facts that suggest that mining comes with negative human, social and environmental costs to all Canadians.

The real costs of mining in Canada include loss of wilderness, pollution of air, water and land, unfair tax concessions and enormous health costs:

  • Over 10,000 mines abandoned by their owners, many of them poisoning our water through leaching acidic toxins including arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead,
  • Billions of dollars worth of public liability for cleanup of mines on crown lands where the owners have walked away
  • Disruption of the lives of thousands of indigenous people in Canada and abroad
  • Destruction of wilderness and critical habitat for bears, caribou, salmon and other creatures
  • Hundreds of thousands of injured workers, suffering from silicosis, cancer, back injuries and white hand.
  • Foregone opportunities for other kinds of economic development because of the huge public treasury investment in mining.

Mining is risky business for everyone. The mining industry would have you believe that investors carry the all the risk. This is not true. The real risks of mining are borne by public taxpayers at the federal and provincial levels, Aboriginal peoples, workers and communities, and the environment.

The public is the largest investor in mining

The public benefits from jobs, taxes and royalties attributed to mining need to be seen on the same ledger with the costs to the public. The Faro Mine received over $1 billion in grants and subsidies from the public purse before it closed. This figure does not include tax benefits, or the enormous costs of cleanup.

Amongst the taxpayers' contribution to the mining industry are:

    • royalties that do not compensate for the full costs for the use of Crown land, and are often deferred or remain unpaid because they are based on profit
    • grants, forgivable loans, and bailouts for marginal mines
    • subsidized infrastructure like roads, airstrips, power generation and rates
    • fees that do not fully recover the costs of services provided by government: surveys, claims processing, research, monitoring, health care, education, training, and so on
    • tax deferrals and exemptions for prospecting, development and closure
    • cleanup and perpetual care for the thousands of toxic sites left behind

Aboriginal People want to be able to say "no" when costs outweigh the benefits

Mining is a short-term activity. With the exception of a few sites, mines are only there for 5-15 years. They may provide some jobs for local people, but the price paid for these jobs may include the loss of traditional ways of life forever, with the death of caribou, fish and forests through mine wastes, population migration, and infrastructure development like dams, roads and airstrips.

A consultation with Aboriginal organizations in September of this year indicated that mining creates enormous social problems in communities including suicide. Debates over the role of development and distribution of any benefits from mining create schisms in the community that do not go away.

Pressure from mining companies for quick agreements on environmental assessment, land rights and impact-benefit agreements can exhaust community leadership and create the basis for bad decisions. All the bargaining takes place in hotels far from home and communities. In one tiny First Nation in the North West Territories, a population of 600 is having to negotiate with 40 mining companies, including the two largest mining companies in the world.

Workers and communities bear the health risks

Mining is dangerous work even in old and established mines. Although the pay is often high, the years a miner can work are short. Most mines in remote areas do not last very long. Miners regularly suffer from bad backs and white-hand disease. They suffer from industrial deafness and chronic obstructive lung disease. Many of them work far from their family and community, and are only home for short periods of time. Weakening the power of unions to organize and protect their members is an on-going activity of the mining lobby.

For communities downstream from mines and downwind from smelters, the load of heavy metals and toxins in the soil and water damage health. In some communities, people who eat country foods like fish, game and plants suffer cancers, allergies and other symptoms of poisoning. Workers compensation may cover some of the health costs, but the cost of caring for the disabled and sick falls on families and the public. It is not on the company ledger.

The environment cannot be treated negligently

The greatest cost of mining is the mess it leaves behind. At the Giant Mine in Yellowknife, enough arsenic trioxide has been left to poison all of Great Slave Lake. The Sydney tar ponds will cost over half a billion dollars to cleanup. The Britannia Mine in British Columbia is leaking acid and toxins into Howe Sound. Despite re-vegetation efforts in Sudbury, it will take tens of thousands of years before the land INCO and Falconbridge have damaged returns to the pine forest it once was.

The toxic legacy of mining is not an exception; it is business-as-usual

In the past and the present, everywhere mining takes place, it leaves behind waste rock, acid mine drainage and poisoned waters. Even the most effectively rehabilitated sites, like Rio Algom's Poirier Mine in Québec, will require monitoring and care forever for the acres of poisoned land and tailings ponds it has created. Even the most expensive technological solutions cannot do more than minimize damage. For some damage - like radioactivity - no technological solution has been found.

The mining lobby would have you believe that their new projects are being needlessly delayed by the Environmental Assessment process. These delays are not needless; they result from the need for thorough research and analysis of the impacts of mining, and from the need for communities and governments to have the opportunity to say "no" if the project will cause more problems than it solves. The mining lobby works constantly to undermine environmental laws and regulations, and to get cut enforcement budgets.

Mining companies come crashing into communities and eco-systems that have not invited them to be there. If they find a substantive deposit, they demand the right to mine.

Mining has long term impacts and many hidden costs.
We all have a responsibility to protect the future with strong, sound regulation and with adequate resources to ensure compliance.

MiningWatch Canada is a public-interest response to threats posed by irresponsible mining practices. It is a not-for-profit organization centred in Ottawa, with membership from labour, Aboriginal organizations, environmental and social justice groups.

For more information, contact Joan Kuyek, National Co-ordinator 613-569-3439