Is it a lake, or is it a tailings pond?

Thanks to the former Liberal government, mining companies in Canada are eligible to apply for a large cost-saving measure.

Thanks to the former Liberal government, mining companies in Canada are eligible to apply for a large cost-saving measure. It’s not a given, but if they cross all their t’s and dot their i’s they might avoid the expense of building a tailings pond, and dump their tailings in a lake instead.

This past November, the Conservative government took the unexpected and praiseworthy step of turning down one such application, the Prosperity Mine project, near Williams Lake, BC. The mine would have turned Fish Lake, a wilderness jewel of cultural significance to the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, into a toxic dump site.

Citing damage to fish and wildlife habitat, Environment Minister Jim Prentice declared that the project, which promised to bring much-needed jobs to the area, could not proceed “as proposed”, giving the proponent, Taseko Mines, some hope that they may be able to proceed with a rejigged application.

In the meantime, other Canadian lakes face the possibility of being turned into “tailings impoundment areas.” Sandy Pond, in Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, is a trophy trout lake, and home to a unique species of sturgeon. Brazilian mining giant Vale Inco wants to dump 400,000 tonnes of toxic mine waste in it every year. According to Mining Watch there are six mines currently dumping waste in lakes, and 12 more in the application process.

The regulation which permits this practice is, absurdly, an amendment to the Fisheries Act, a law supposedly intended to protect marine species and environments. So why did the Liberals amend the act to permit the total annihilation of unique marine ecosystems like Sandy Pond? According to the Toronto Star’s Linda Diebel, the decision came after “intense lobbying efforts” by the mining industry.

The lobbying in question took place simultaneously in both the US and Canada, though both the Mining Association of Canada and the US National Mining Association deny there was any concerted campaign. Be that as it may, the lobbyists were successful in both countries, though in the US the change was achieved by redefining the term “fill” to include tailings.

Here in Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans appears to have become a proponent of the practice, despite the fact it is also the regulator to whom companies must apply if they wish to poison a lake. On its website, DFO claims, “Natural lakes can provide a long-term, stable environment for storing mine waste. They have a small risk of failure when compared to artificial impoundment areas if no dams are required.”

“Failure” in this sense means failure to contain mine waste. Their failure as lakes is not in question, and is, in fact, guaranteed. Since the majority of mines use artificial impoundment areas, the question arises, has the DFO been approving ponds with a high risk of failure? If so, why? What was to stop them from insisting on better built ponds?

Why not enact a law banning the dumping of mine waste in wild waters, and instead require the construction of tailings ponds that work? Because that’s not what the intense lobbyists were after. That costs lots of money, and hurts profits.

On the other hand, costs create jobs, which in every case is what mining companies and their political supporters promise the local population in order to gain their support for the destruction of their lakes.

The Sandy Pond project is in court in St. Johns, facing a challenge from environmental groups. It has passed all necessary provincial and environmental reviews, and if the court challenge fails, it will go ahead. In an interesting twist, the government of Canada not only plans to give Vale Inco a lake, it has already given them a $1 billion unsecured loan. That could come in handy for covering court costs. Or, it could be used to build a secure tailings pond.

It’s possible the court may find in favour of the environmentalists, which might have the effect of striking down the law and protecting Canada’s lakes for the foreseeable future. Still the question will remain, what possessed a succession of Canadian governments to permit, or even to contemplate permitting, this practice?

Whatever the efforts of those intense lobbyists back in 2002, whatever ministers they wined and dined then or since, it’s hard to see what point they could have made that would justify giving them our most precious natural resource to dump in.

A suggestion for ministers of the environment, present and future: when somebody comes to you with a proposal like Sandy Pond, don’t waste time mulling it over. Just show them the door, and tell them no, you can’t put your tailings there.

It’s a lake, stupid.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.