B.C.’s mining regulations fall short on tailings dams, cleanup costs and Indigenous consent when comparing with some other jurisdictions
By Francesca Fionda, The Narwhal
Mining is big business in B.C. The industry brought in $9.5 billion in gross mining revenues in 2020, employs more than 11,000 people and the province is home to over 1,200 mineral and exploration companies.
B.C.’s mining association has called the province a “leading” and “world-class mining jurisdiction.” But when it comes to mining regulations, there are a few examples where B.C. is lagging behind the rest of the world.
The Narwhal is tracking mining regulations that exist in other countries that B.C. doesn’t have. Here are four to get us started.
1. Tailings dams: in China, Ecuador and Brazil, building them near communities is restricted
There are no laws against building dams that hold mining waste, known as tailings storage facilities, near communities or sensitive ecosystems in B.C., according to B.C. Mining Law Reform.
These structures can be hundreds of metres high and hold millions of litres of tailings. The province has 172 dams holding about 2.5 billion cubic metres of mining waste, according to a recent analysis. That’s enough to fill BC Place stadium about 943 times.
When these structures fail, the consequences can be deadly. In reaction to tailings dams disasters, some governments have implemented rules that limit or prevent mines and dams from being built near communities. After the Brumadinho dam disaster killed 270 people in Brazil in 2019, the state of Minas Gerais restricted building tailings dams within 10 kilometres to 25 kilometres upstream of populated areas.
In Ecuador, tailings facilities can’t be built within 10 kilometres upstream of a populated area. China passed legislation restricting mines to one kilometre from residential areas. China also restricted the height of tailings dams to 200 metres. There are mining companies in B.C. that are currently considering increasing the height of their tailings dams to more than 230 metres — among the tallest in the world.
B.C.’s challenge is that the provincial mineral tenure act allows anyone to make a claim close to communities, including on private property or near drinking water systems, Nikki Skuce, director of Northern Confluence, an initiative focused on improving land-use decisions and conserving watersheds, said.
Skuce pointed to Abacus’ proposed Ajax mine that’s described as “in the immediate vicinity” of the city of Kamloops. Residents of the city and the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation opposed the copper-gold mine proposal in 2017, and asked the province to suspend the project. The project was not given an environmental assessment certificate by the provincial government and was also rejected by the federal government.
While the environmental assessment process is a way that communities can express their concerns about a project, there are no regulations that specifically prohibit a tailings dam from being built nearby, Skuce said.
The company recently expressed it is continuing to work on finding a way to move forward with the project. “With copper and gold prices near all-time highs we would be happy to see this project advance more quickly, to the benefit of all stakeholders,” Paul Anderson, president and CEO of Abacus, said. “The Ajax project remains a priority for our partner [KGHM] and that they continue to engage about the project with First Nations.”
Skuce points to Quebec as a possible model for B.C. In Quebec, municipalities can create no-go zones in their land-use plans to prevent mining in spots without existing claims. Municipalities can also create buffer zones a kilometre around urban and densely populated areas to prevent mining projects.
“I would encourage the B.C. government, or any government for that matter, to create no-go-zones,” Ugo Lapointe, former national coordinator at MiningWatch Canada and co-spokesperson of the Quebec Meilleure Mine Coalition said. Lapointe said the new law has been a useful tool for some municipalities and is an opportunity for other jurisdictions to learn from Quebec and modernize their own laws.
You can find out how close you are to a tailings dam and how tall it is using BC Mining Law Reform’s mine tailings map.
Read the full story on The Narwhal.