New Copper and Coal Mine Rush in British Columbia

In 2010, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal government can no longer break the law by conducting weak environmental assessments of mines, yet at the same time approved a giant mine in southern BC that would use a sacred and popular lake as a toxic waste dump, I was spurred into action to learn more about mining.

What I discovered is that the BC and Federal government have been secretly paving the way in northwestern BC for the largest mining boom in recent Canadian history. The reason being to pay government debt created by tax cuts. Most importantly I learned that it is not too late to stop this mining boom. Surprisingly, it all seems to hinge on the construction of a massive 335 km long taxpayer funded electricity transmission line to power the mines. Read on to find out how the citizens of BC can stop these mines that threaten, among other things, to pollute the most important cluster of salmon rivers on planet earth.

BC’s principal mining products are copper and coal, deposits of which are distributed throughout BC, but most of the large new mine proposals are in the northwest BC Coast Mountains, in sensitive wilderness environments home to some of the worlds largest remaining salmon rivers and wildlife populations. Most of the proposed mines are within a region known as the Sacred Headwaters, but others like Taseko’s Prosperity copper mine, which proposes to use a sacred First Nations cultural and recreation site, Fish Lake, as an enormous toxic mine waste dumping ground, are located further south in the Coast Mountains a few hundred km north of Vancouver, BC. The BC government has set a goal of reaching a daily production quota of 50,000 metric tonnes of copper ore and 30,000 tonnes of coal. And they are well on there way to achieving this goal. In 2009, thirty new mine development projects, totaling hundreds of thousands of tones of copper and coal, were submitted to the BC government for approval. Additionally several of the largest copper mines in Canadian history have recently been approved by provincial and federal governments and development is imminent. This blog addresses the controversy of copper and coal mining and briefly discusses some of the major mine proposals in the BC Coast Mountains.

Weak environmental assessment (EA) processes have green-lighted every single mine proposal in BC regardless of environmental impact. Further weakening of EA requirements by the BC government in 2002 made approval of mine proposals virtually guaranteed. One big problem is that the BC and Federal governments’ EA processes assess only certain components of mine projects and then analyze them in isolation from one another. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2010 that the Federal government, which only assesses the very largest mines producing more than 3,000 metric tonnes of material per day, must abandon piecemeal EA’s and assess mines using comprehensive and cumulative techniques. Ironically, at the same time, the Supreme Court excluded the most environmentally damaging project, Taseko’s Prosperity copper mine from such cumulative assessment. Whether the Federal government will follow the law as mandated by the Supreme Court remains to be seen. Regardless, most mines are not of sufficient size to warrant federal assessment and thus, due to weak provincial EA’s, mine approval is virtually guaranteed in BC.

As many of Earth’s biggest copper and coal mines near depletion, mining companies are increasingly focusing their attention on remote regions of northwestern BC, an area underlain by large quantities of valuable copper, coal and other minerals and metals. Although most of the deposits have been known for decades, they were not developed because of their remote location, high capital costs, low commodity prices, and environmental and First Nation protests. Now the table has turned. Hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to mining companies from federal and provincial governments, a proposed 335 km taxpayer-funded transmission line to supply energy to run the mines, and slightly elevated coal and copper prices have resulted in many mine approvals in the northern Sacred Headwaters and central Coast Mountains. Additionally a stagnant BC economy has resulted in a desperate government attempt to promote mining to earn royalty revenues to balance provincial budgets. Massive subsidies and weakened environmental assessments are being successfully used as a carrot to lure more mining companies to BC. Now, northwestern BC is about to experience the equivalent of a modern day gold-rush. Recently, copper and coal mines have taken precedence over coal bed methane mines because royalty revenues are far greater for copper and coal mines.

In the northwestern corner of BC, the watersheds of the Skeena, Nass and Stickine-Iskut Rivers, collectively referred to by the Tahltan Nation and others as Klabona or the Sacred Headwaters are threatened by the largest copper and coal mining boom in the recent history of Canada. The Sacred Headwaters contains the largest cluster of important salmon rivers on earth and the highlands between the rivers boast a huge Serengeti-like environment for wildlife. Further south within the traditional territory of the Nemiah (Xeni Gwet’in) Nation, one of the very largest copper mines was approved in 2010 to use a lake as a toxic dumping ground for mine waste.

Numerous long-standing proposals to mine copper and coal in the Klabona or Sacred Headwaters region have, until recently, been stopped by a combination of First Nations protest, environmental activism, the high cost of importing electricity to power the mines, the massive infrastructure costs of the mines, and low mineral/metal (commodity) prices.

This all changed over the past few years when federal and provincial governments teamed up to offer a $370 million subsidy toward the $1/2 billion construction of a 335 km power-line to “electrify” (provide tax-payer subsidized power to mining companies) this area. The power-line would follow highway 37 between Hazelton and Deese Lake, BC, that provides road access to the mines. Plans are currently being developed with the US to extend the transmission line to Alaska. The BC government is also preparing to offer electricity from privately owned, taxpayer subsidized “run of river” power producers to power the remote mines.

Will The Mines Proceed Without Taxpayer Funded Electricity? No!
One crucial thing to remember is that if the transmission line is stopped, none of the mine projects will likely proceed. Corporate welfare is the only reason a mining industry exists in BC. The BC Transmission Corporation, which is the provincial crown corporation that would build the line, submitted the construction plan to the provincial Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) in January 2010 for its official blessing. The EAO will take 30 days to decide if the information filed is sufficient to start the official 180-day review. There will likely be public involvement in the EAO review and this will be the only chance for the citizens of BC to stand up and voice their opinion on this crucial project. There are also provisions for federal authorities to be involved in the power-line environmental assessment if there are issues within federal jurisdiction. Transmission corporation officials, in the days before the application was submitted, said they were hopeful of a construction start later this year.

The Toxicity of Copper Mines
Copper Mines are the single biggest source of environmental contamination in the mining industry. Copper, other heavy metals, and numerous toxic elements including arsenic, mercury, lead, zinc, cadmium, uranium, thorium and radium-226 are common contaminants at copper mines. Millions of citizens around the world are no longer able to safely consume water and fish in the vicinity of copper mines. Once copper mines start polluting, it is virtually impossible to control. The science of predicting copper mine contamination potential is in its infancy. The majority of copper mines failed to properly assess contamination risk resulting in higher than expected pollution from mine sites. In short, copper mines, although a necessity to humanity, must be very thoughtfully and carefully located because it is virtually guaranteed that massive pollution and contamination of water supplies, and the eradication of adjacent fisheries will result. The proposed copper mines in BC all contain low quality ore with about 0.3-0.4% copper. When all mined materials are taken into account, over 99.9% of is waste rock and toxic tailings that are dumped, burying entire valleys and in one case, filling a lake sacred to First Nations and popular among anglers.

For further reading on the environmental effects of the copper mining industry, including a detailed analysis of the proposed Catface Copper Mine in Clayoquot Sound near Tofino British Columbia see the following Wilderness Committee report.

The Toxicity of Coal Mines
Coal originates from peat, buried deep under ground over millions of years. Coal mining directly releases methane (a greenhouse gas) into the air. Fine particles of coal and sulphur dioxide get suspended in the air as a result of coal mining activity and cause asthma. Heavy metals leach out of coal seams. The most common metal associated with coal seams is pyrite that, when exposed to water, produces sulfuric acid that poisons water and kills aquatic organisms. Mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium and uranium are the most common toxic heavy metals that leach into water draining from coal mines. The most common illnesses caused by coal mining are heart, lung and kidney disease. A study in West Virginia found that people who live near coal mines have 70% higher rates of kidney disease, 64% increase in heart disease and 30% increase in high blood pressure. The same study found that 313 deaths per year in West Virginia are directly attributed to coal mine pollution.

Some of the Biggest and Nastiest Mines

Taseko Mines Ltd's $1 billion proposed copper mine 125 km south of Williams Lake, was awarded a provincial environmental assessment certificate in January 2010 despite the fact that it includes using a large and popular fishing lake and sacred First Nations site, as a toxic mine waste dump. Despite the high potential of toxic contamination of streams and rivers, the BC government approved the mine by concluding that it will have no serious environmental impacts. The Xeni Gwet'in First Nation is opposed to the project and has filed suit with the B.C. Supreme Court to stop the mine. Construction is proposed to proceed in summer 2010. The mine is expected to generate $20 million revenue for BC annually for the 10-20 year lifespan of the mine.

At 99,200 ha this mining property, located 150 km northeast of Stewart, near Iskut, BC, Galore is by far and away the largest copper mine proposed in BC and is located in pristine Stikine River watershed in the Sacred Headwaters. The mine has been approved by both the BC and federal governments.Thought dead only months ago due to the massive debt-load of the proponent, defaulting on loans, and a minimum $5 billion startup cost. NovaGold Resources and partner Tech Resources ramped-up mining at their South American copper mines to generate capital for startup at Galore. The goal is to start construction in 2011. A BC record 8.9 billion pounds of copper will be mined if the project proceeds. The project includes a BC government approved plan for Coast Mountain Hydro to build an 120 megawatt IPP / run of river hydro project to power the copper mine, on the Iskut River at Forrest Kerr Canyon that would result in the river being completely de-watered at certain times of year.

Red Chris
At 17,000 ha this mining property, located 20 km southwest of Iskut BC, in the upper Iskut River valley in the Sacred Headwaters of northwestern BC and owned by Imperial Metals Corp. is the 2nd largest copper mine proposal in BC. The federal government approved the Red Chris mine with only a screening level environmental assessment, despite the fact it would produce ten times as much ore (30,000 tonnes per day) as is required for a full EA. The BC government approved the mine gave Red Chris only a cursory assessment, addressing only a small fraction of the project, leaving out the actual mill and mine. Would be built on top of a Tahltan hunting area. Would produce 490 million tones of toxic tailings and waste rock. The proponent expects acid mine drainage to occur for at least 200 years.

Mt. Klappen / Groundhog

An open-pit coal mine proposal near Spatzizi Provincial Park in the upper Stikine/Nass River watersheds of the Sacred Headwaters, 160 km northeast of Stewart, home of the Tahltan Nation. Tahltan elders oppose the project and have erected protest blockades. Environmental concerns focus on pollution of the Stikine River. The mine is proposed by Fortune Minerals of London Ontario. This enormous project spanning 2,300 sq. km, could produce up to 2.6 billion tonnes of coal although to date 231 million tonnes have been proven to exist. Principal use for the coal would be for briquettes for the steel industry. Various infrastructure proposals include construction of a 100 km access road to a port in Stewart, a 94 km rail extension to access the mine, a slurry plant, a 45 km long underground pipeline to carry coal slurry, a coal fired power plant to power this and other proposed mines, a coal washing plant, and a de-watering plant. Status – under review by BC government and expected to be approved, but still needs federal review because of large size.

Shell Klappen Coalbed Methane
Unlike with mining applications, proposed coal bed methane (CBM) projects, like all oil and gas developments, are not subjected to formal environmental assessments. Shell Canada has proposed to drill 1000 CBM wells in the upper Stikine River watershed adjacent to the approved Klappen coal mine in the Sacred Headwaters. Methane is extracted from coal seams by extracting toxic water deep underground which forces methane to the surface where it is collected. Scientists estimate that at least 25% of the methane, the most toxic global warming gas, escapes into the atmosphere from CBM plants. The captured methane would then be burned, like natural gas, for energy production. The driving concern is that the proposed 1000 wells could produce 17,000 or more litres of toxic salt water, per well, per day and that this water could escape into fish bearing streams and rivers. In the US, coal-bed methane wells have caused some of the worst water pollution in the mining industry, poisoning streams, rivers and domestic drinking water. Due to First Nations and environmentalists concerns, the province of BC declared a moratorium “cooling off period” on the Klappen coalbed methane project until December 2010. In the meantime, Shell is still actively planning to resume drilling at Klappen in 2011 and has now turned their attention to the Ferrell CBM plant near Hudsons Hope BC, where they are rapidly expanding drilling operations and assuming partial ownership over BC’s only fully operational CBM plant, the Peace River plant. Toxic water from this plant is re-injected into spent natural gas wells, but it will take years to determine if this toxic water remains contained in the spent wells or leaks out into surrounding aquifers and fish bearing streams. Most CBM in BC is in the Peace River area and residents of the area can expect a massive expansion in CBM applications and tenures in coming years.

Schaft Creek
A 25,000 ha mining property on the edge of Mt Edzizz Provincial Park 60 km south of Telegraph Creek in the Sacred Headwaters. Mine has not yet been approved by BC government, but proponent expects BC and federal government approval and anticipates development to begin in 2011. Project owned by Copper Fox Metals with a proposed $½ billion dollar construction price-tag. Ore body estimated to contain 1.4 billion tonnes of low quality copper ore, the third largest copper mine proposal in BC. The mine proposal is based on 100,000 metric tonnes of ore being processed daily. Toxic mine tailings would fill several valleys and lakes.

Tulsequah Chief
A 2,500 tonne per day copper mine proposed in the road-less Taku River wilderness. Very controversial mine site due to proximity to major salmon river that crosses from Canada to the US near its mouth, and because of plans to build hundreds of km of roads to access the mine and use the river to barge toxic ore out of the site. Years of exploration at the mine site has resulted in acid draining directly into the river and killing fish. The mine proponent, Redfern/Redcorp Resources, went bankrupt in 2009, giving mine opponents time to re-group. Currently, talks are underway to protect the river between the Taku River Tlingit Nation, environmental groups, the federal governments of Canada and the US as well as Alaska and BC. The mine has been approved for development by the BC government, but does not qualify for federal review because mine proponents chose to extend the life of the mine to keep daily production levels just below the threshold that would trigger a federal review.