First Nations resource tool to assist communities to understand the risks associated with tailings dams in central and northern BC
Stresses need for caution, careful planning, consultation to safeguard 48 watersheds
Vancouver (Coast Salish Traditional Territory. Wednesday June 3, 2015): A detailed survey of central and northern BC shows the 35 tailings ponds at 26 mining operations on 48 key watersheds could impact 33 First Nations communities; more than 200 other communities including most of the largest cities in the region, and 8,678 km of fish-bearing waters.
Published by the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council, the analysis was begun after the August 2014 Mount Polley tailings pond collapse and given added impetus by a panel review report earlier this year that warned BC could expect two similar breaches per decade from existing dams.
The report – “Uncertainty Upstream: Potential Threats from Tailings Facility Failures in Northern British Columbia” – stresses the analysis is not intended to imply all the tailings facilities analyzed will at some point fail, but says the work provides “a comprehensive summary of potential threats from future tailings facility failures in Northern British Columbia, as well as act a cautionary exercise for future planning given the increase in interest and capacity for future mining operations throughout the region.”
Uncertainty Upstream, which included detailed maps of the key watersheds, is being shared with the BC government and is available through the FNEMC site as a research tool to First Nations to help them assess the risks to their communities and the key salmon bearing rivers on which they depend.
“This report will assist First Nations to better understand the location of tailings dams in their territories, the habitat and communities downstream of those facilities, and the cumulative impacts to their watersheds,” said Dave Porter, FNEMC’s CEO.
“FNEMC has created another planning tool to assist individual First Nations to prepare for current and future initiatives with regards to land and resource management”, said Nelson Leon, FNEMC’s president of the First Nations Energy and Mining Council.
The data shows a total of 3,275 km of waterways are immediately downstream of the 35 tailing ponds and 5,403 km lie in watersheds further downstream where the contaminants could eventually reach.
In addition to threatening drinking water for the 33 First Nations communities and 208 other communities, including Prince George, Smithers, Terrace and other big centres, pollution from any breaches could be devastating to BC’s key salmon and steelhead, which the report notes are acutely sensitive to the copper that is common in acid rock drainage. Copper can be acutely toxic to adult salmon and steelhead in concentrations of as low as 50 parts per billion. Much lower concentrations can affect the sense of smell that guides salmon to their spawning grounds and leave juveniles more exposed to predators.
A full 80% of Chinook salmon habitat in the region (12,813 km) is either downstream of a tailings facility or requires migrating through a potential contaminant flow path. For Sockeye, Coho and Chum the numbers are 79%, 58% and 47% respectively.
The report calls for:
- The protection of entire river, lake, and wetland ecosystems from industrial activities and impacts;
- Renewed focus on establishing headwater-to-mouth watershed protected areas for river systems with full complements of migratory fish to compensate for freshwater habitat and biodiversity lost and impaired in other watersheds;
- Protected areas that encompass watersheds and waterways to ensure rivers remain intact and hydrological flows are unimpaired;
- Mining companies and governments to ensure that impacted communities secure lasting, long-term economic benefits that enhance community health and sustainability;
- Communities and the public to be protected by funding mechanisms for unanticipated post mine-closure impacts or financial burdens for clean-up and remediation.
This report summarizes statistics for Northern BC, starting at Mount Polley and reaching to Yukon and Southeast Alaska borders; the detail maps also show how potential water contamination from future failures would flow into Alaska and the major salmon fisheries of that state. For practical purposes and due to the fact that they are isolated, islands off the coast of British Columbia were not included in the study.
Media inquiries: Yvonne Prince: 604 353 8663