For 60 years, toxins have been draining into British Columbia’s Taku watershed.
And for years Rivers Without Borders — an environmental group with offices in Alaska, Yukon and BC — has been trying to get the mess cleaned up.
Its latest project is an online petition, which asks the Canadian government to enforce the Fisheries Act and ensure the site is remediated.
So far, 360 people have signed on.
The Tulsequah Chief and Big Bull mines are both located on the Tulsequah River, a tributary of the Taku.
In 1957, the mines closed but the sites were never properly decommissioned and cleaned up said Chris Zimmer, an environmentalist with Rivers Without Borders.
On October 26, 1989, BC issued a pollution abatement order to Cominco, the owner of the mine, after finding “considerable acid generation,” that was “acutely toxic” to fish.
“When you fly over the site you can actually see the discharge leaking into the river,” said Zimmer.
When Vancouver-based Redcorp Ventures Ltd. purchased the two mines in the early 1990s, it also bought the clean-up liability, he said.
Acidic mine drainage is a common problem with abandoned metal and coal mines, said Zimmer.
When disturbed rock is exposed to water and air, a chemical reaction known as oxidation takes place.
This generates acidity, and heavy metals are leached into the surrounding watershed.
In 1999, Redcorp attempted to fix the problem at the Tulsequah Chief site by installing limestone dams and a disposal field.
Environment Canada inspectors found those measures inadequate — they did not significantly reduce the lethal toxic discharge.
Redcorp has since installed a treatment plant at the Tulsequah Chief site, but won’t be able to do anything more until the mine is reopened, said Salina Landstad of Redcorp Ventures from Vancouver.
“It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a leaky faucet,” said Landstad.
“It’s pretty hard to fix something when you can’t get to it.”
Redcorp has recently applied for permits to build roads and other infrastructure for the mine.
It hopes to receive the necessary permits by 2008, so it can begin to mine the precious metals at the site.
To begin mining again before cleaning up the previous mess is “ass backwards,” said Zimmer.
“It’s blackmail and I think we have a reason to be paranoid about whether or not they’ll start cleaning once they open the mines,” he said.
“The government hasn’t been holding their feet to the fire. They’ve lost a lot of credibility.”
Zimmer also doubts Redcorp is actually unable to access the site.
In July, Redcorp took a number of trips up to the mines using a conventional barge, he said.
During one of the trips, the barge struck the canyon wall.
On another occasion the barge hit a fish wheel that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses to count fish.
That doesn’t bode well for the department that was already wary of the mine’s development, said Zimmer.
Recently, Environment Canada completed its most recent investigation into the mines, said senior investigator Al Holtz.
“We’ve found that Redcorp has done everything that they can do. They’ve gone above and beyond.
“The Americans can take a hint from it,” he added.
Environment Canada is confident that Redcorp will clean up the drainage when it begins operating the mine.
What if there’s a problem getting the permits to reopen the mine?
“Then it would remain as it is right now,” said Holtz.
“Shouldn’t Environment Canada require a cleanup in any event?” asked Zimmer.
“The law is the law and Redcorp should be held legally responsible.”
Zimmer doesn’t buy the “above and beyond” argument, that the company has actually done more toward cleanup than is officially expected.
He believes Redcorp and government agencies ignored the problem for years.
“Canadian agencies must have a very different definition of above and beyond than most people.”
Rivers Without Borders also launched a mining investor webpage last Wednesday under the name Northwest Mining Investor Report.
The goal of the page was not to drive cleanup but to get information out to investors, said Zimmer.
The webpage was made separate from the normal Rivers Without Borders website because the group believed investors would be more likely to view it.
Redcorp is saying that everything is progressing well with its proposed operation in the Tulsequah Chief and Big Bull mines, said Zimmer.
“You could easily argue that things aren’t going that great.”
Redcorp set very optimistic schedules and it hasn’t been able to meet these goals, he said.
The big problem seems to be opposition to the hover-barge that Redcorp is proposing for transport to and from the site.
A tow vehicle called the Amphitrac, which is brand new and apparently still at the design stage, will manoeuvre the hover-barge.
According to the Rivers Without Borders report, the proposed transportation system faces in-depth scrutiny from Alaska and US federal agencies.
“The potential for damaging and/or destroying sensitive fish and wildlife habitat for both the air cushion barge and the Amphitrac tug is unacceptably high,” a commercial fish biologist is quoted saying.
The failure to receive permits could mean a major delay in Redcorp’s goal of having the mine in operation by 2008.