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Hovering above Johnny Mountain in a helicopter, derelict buildings and rusted-out machinery are all that appear to remain of the gold mine -- but there's much more going on beneath the surface. Mining ceased here in 1993, but the 3.7 kilometres of underground workings have the potential to generate toxic drainage like a malevolent factory, leaching acid and heavy metals into the wild Iskut River below.

Not far to the northwest, the Tulsequah Chief mine has been fouling one of Alaska's most important salmon rivers for 50 years with a steady heavy metallic plume -- despite four government "orders" to clean it up and six B.C. taxpayer-funded visits to document the damage since 1989.

There are at least 1,800 closed or abandoned mines in B.C. today that have little chance of ever being cleaned up, a legacy of our Wild West mining past when no regulations existed. But do not confuse the two above mines with that legacy. Both are "brown field" mining prospects that languish in a bureaucratic netherworld somewhere between abandonment and active extraction -- owned by modern mining companies intent on redeveloping the properties or adjacent claims.

Both are mere potholes compared to what's coming. Over the next few decades in northwest B.C., cheap grid power from a new transmission line will make it economical to move mountains of rock to extract relatively tiny amounts of copper and gold from vast open pits. The rosiest prediction sees six big operational mines in the northwest by 2015.

Along with the expected profits, jobs and tax revenue will also come enormous liabilities: after millions of tonnes of mining waste have been rearranged into waste dumps and tailings impoundments -- much of it requiring acid rock drainage (ARD) treatment for generations -- the whole mess is going to have to be cleaned up and closely monitored.

"The main thing that society needs to grapple with now is, what is the long term vision for these sites?" asks Ramsey Hart, Canada program coordinator for Mining Watch Canada. "Some will require someone to be looking after them for hundreds of years if we are to maintain [adequate] protections in terms of water. Who will take responsibility?"

The way it works

A modern open pit mine is more than a source of valuable minerals -- it's also a permanent waste storage facility. Increased mechanization means that more rock can be moved and milled, creating larger and more complex waste streams than ever before.

The sheer quantity of waste -- from tailings, waste rock, liquid effluents and chemicals needed to isolate valuable minerals -- necessitates that everything must remain on the site after mining.

In Canada today, mining companies are responsible for all aspects of mine closure and reclamation. Companies must submit mine closure plans prior to receiving approval to commence mining; in B.C., approval of such a plan and a financial guarantee is required before a mine can be issued a permit.

Al Hoffman, B.C.'s chief inspector of mines, says we've come a long way since the '60s, when B.C. became one of the first provinces in Canada to enact mine reclamation legislation, including the requirement that companies post up-front financial securities to guarantee mine clean-up costs. "There were no reclamation securities before 1969, and certainly since that time, B.C.'s mining industry has had a stellar record," he told The Tyee.

Calculating the details of that financial guarantee today is the subject of considerable exchange and negotiation during the development of a project. "We look at two things: company and environmental risk," says Diane Howe, B.C.'s deputy chief inspector of mines and senior reclamation specialist.

When determining the form of that guarantee, Howe says they look at the financial strength of the company, its diversification, its credit rating, whatever liability it has elsewhere, and what its permformance has been in the past. Mine capacity, mine cash flow, value of commodities and even property values are also weighed.

The degree of environmental risk is determined by looking at the need for physical reclamation, such as the resloping and revegetation of a mine site; the removal of all buildings, roads, power ways and pipelines. The last piece is long-term closure, including the operational costs of ongoing water treatments, and any monitoring and maintenance at the site.

Beyond ongoing payments into a security, Hofmann says a company is bound by the conditions of its mine permit. "We can request an increase in securities at any time," he says. "If they don't fulfill those conditions, we have the authority to order them to do so, we can write orders and if they don't there are legal penalties."

A regulatory and fiscal black hole?

A report produced this week by the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre Clinic seriously questions the ability of government to prevent future environmental and taxpayer liabilities from mining. "Both industry and government often contend that mining activities will not harm the environment because strict standards will be followed both during and after operations," concludes author Maya Stano, a law student and former private sector mining engineer. "Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that compliance is not being adequately enforced to ensure that these commitments are indeed upheld."

The capacity of government to monitor the commitments made by B.C. mining companies during the environmental assessment process is virtually nil, says Stano. The monitoring that does happen is now generally limited to proponent-hired monitors and in place only for a limited period at the construction and early operational stages of the project. "This leaves environmental protection at the operations and closure stages extremely vulnerable."

In 2003, the province eliminated all regional mine reclamation inspectors, leaving just one position in Victoria. By 2004, mine visits by inspectors fell to 400 from 2,000 visits in 2001; by 2008, just over 1,000 visits had been made, still only half the inspections done in 2001.

The latest information on such mine visits is not publically available because the chief inspector of mines, who is required to file annual reports online, is currently out of compliance with his own reporting requirements for 2009 and 2010. "It's coming," said chief inspector Hoffman when pressed for the missing online reports by The Tyee. "To be honest, it's partially from lack of staff."

Too much discretion with securities?

Stano says B.C.'s chief inspector of mines has too much discretion when negotiating mine securities with mining companies. If she could make only one recommendation based on her research, it is that some of this power be curtailed.

Today in B.C., it is not a legal requirement that a mining company post a bond; it remains subject to the discretion of the chief inspector of mines. This unelected bureaucrat makes the ultimate decision of what constitutes an acceptable form of financial security, too, which can range widely from low risk (e.g. cash in the bank) to high risk (e.g. the value of equipment on a mining site). This latter practice, was described by the B.C. auditor general in 2002 as "questionable" given that such assets depreciate over time, and in a worst-case scenario, ultimately compete with paying salaries, paying income tax, and the claims of other creditors.

Such is the case with Johnny Mountain mine -- according to a spring 2011 company regulatory filing, "mining equipment" worth just over $190,000 has been pledged in part to cover reclamation costs of Johnny Mountain. For the proposed Red Chris mine in northwest B.C., the company's latest reclamation funding plan also assumes that funds received from the "salvage of the mine equipment, process plant, and other infrastructure" will be applied to reclamation funding.

The chief inspector also has the power to make a company's calculation of reclamation costs confidential -- including for properties requiring perpetual ARD treatment and monitoring. While a miner must submit an "estimate of the total expected costs of outstanding reclamation obligations over the planned life of the mine, including the costs of long term monitoring and maintenance," no one outside of government or industry can scrutinize whether such estimates are reasonable or adequate to cover future costs.

Diane Howe says this confidentiality protects the competitive position of companies who will often be tendering out the future work to close the mine. "The companies don’t want contractors having the advantage of being able to see some of this info."

This means that the kind of independent, third-party scrutiny of mine closure costs that have been attempted in both Alaska (see last table at end of this page) and Alberta are not possible here -- and potentially put taxpayers at risk.

This transparency is vital given the uncertainty and huge margin for error that exists when trying to predict how environmental conditions at a big closed mine site will change over time, particularly involving site chemistry and ARD. "If a proposed mine site predicts no acid rock drainage (ARD) after any mitigation measures, then it has about a 50 per cent probability of being correct about that," writes K.A. Morin in a 2010 study examining the accuracy of pre-mining environmental risk predictions. "If a minesite already has ARD, there is about a 90 per cent probability it was predicted to have low ARD potential before it started."

The boom starts here

B.C.'s much-hyped mining boom will be centred on the northwest corner of the province, one of three regions noted for high ARD potential. The most advanced proposed mine in this region is Red Chris, about 80 kilometres south of Dease Lake -- a medium-sized open-pit copper/gold mine relative to nearby projects like Galore Creek, Schaft Creek and Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell. (See map.)

The current plan at Red Chris is to mill 30,000 tons of rock a day for about 28 years -- which would produce at least 275 million tons of waste rock and tailings by the time it's over.

After the mine closes in 2043, the company expects a large rock waste dump and the exposed walls of the open pit to become acid generating. "It may be decades following mine decommissioning before acid generation becomes a concern and treatment is required," states a 2005 government Assessment Report for the mine. "Treatment will likely be required in perpetuity."

How does the government negotiate the terms of closure in such a scenario? "You have to realize we've got 15 to 20 years for this company (Imperial Metals) to figure out how they can maybe possibly mitigate for that acid rock drainage," says Howe. "So we won't ask for the company at day one for that long-term post closure treatment (detail)."

She adds that companies are required to report annually on their evolving liabilities at a site. "There is very detailed reporting required for changes to the mine plan, and we are constantly reviewing securities at mine sites."

In its latest feasibility plan, the company proposes to build a "state-of-the art" water treatment plant that "will operate over the long term to contain, collect, treat and discharge water from the site." The tailings from the site will be contained by three earth-fill dams constructed in the valley to the southeast of the mine site.

"You can imagine that given the time lag, there is no way to provide anything but an estimate of the reclamation process at this time," Imperial Metals vice president of corporate development Gord Keevil told The Tyee. "We will continue to do research to mitigate any issues, and feel hopeful that the potential water treatment plant and ongoing treatment will not be necessary."

Two mines, ongoing responsibilities

The owners of the Johnny Mountain site got into the government's bad books in 2007, when they went behind the back of regulators and burned and buried much of the detritus on the mountain top, which then had to be spot excavated at company expense and tested for toxins. "Johnny Mountain is the case of a company that's struggling to keep themselves afloat," Howe told The Tyee. "We're very close to confiscating whatever we need to do the work up there."

The Tulsequah Chief mine received high profile attention in the summer of 2009, when Sarah Palin implored Gordon Campbell to clean up the site -- which continues to jeopardize Alaska's great Taku River commercial salmon fishery.

But after 50 years, Environment Canada says Chieftain Metals, a company run by Terence Chandler -- the former CEO of Redfern Corp., the very same company that went bankrupt trying to open the mine in 2009 -- is finally going to clean it up. "Chieftain Metals is in the process of setting up their base camp and waste water treatment plant at the Tulsequah Chief mine site," said an Environment Canada spokesperson on May 11. "Waste water is not yet being treated."  [Tyee]


Modern open-pit mines disturb massive volumes of rock; nearly three tonnes of rock must be excavated to produce a typical gold wedding band. This discarded rock and tailings can contain acid-generating sulphides, which start a natural chemical reaction when exposed to air and water. In a process analogous to the decomposition of a leaf fallen from a tree, the sulphide-bearing rock degrades with this exposure, releasing acid and metals into surface and groundwater. Acid rock drainage can begin decades after a mine has closed, and once it starts, a perpetual chain reaction can result; of the at least 60 mines in British Columbia with serious environmental liabilities today, 40 of those have significant uncertainties around drainage chemistry.

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