The B.C. government says it will take any action necessary to protect the environment after the owner of the Tulsequah Chief mine, which has been leaking toxic water for decades, went into receivership.
In a statement sent to the News, B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said that the province will send inspectors to the mine site later this month.
“The B.C. government will complete the Aquatic Ecological Risk Assessment and the findings from it will determine whether or to what extent mine effluent may be impacting the environment and provide a foundation for next steps,” Bennett said.
“The province is committed to addressing historic acid mine drainage discharge issues at the Tulsequah Chief mine site should any be determined by this new assessment.”
The mine, located 100 kilometres south of Atlin, shut down 50 years ago but was never properly reclaimed resulting in a heavy metal flowing out of the mine.
Bennett said Alaska officials confirmed in 2014 the mine wasn’t causing damage to the Tulsequah River, but that claim is disputed by environmentalists.
Water sampling has been conducted over the years, but there hasn’t been any study looking at where the heavy metal waste goes, Chris Zimmer, Alaska campaign director for Rivers Without Borders, told the News.
“What is the effect on the watershed and life?” he asked.
Zimmer criticized B.C.’s handling of the mine. He said it was inspected in 2015, but no action was taken despite the fact the mine’s owner, Chieftain Metals Inc., was not complying with its mining permits.
“Basically little was done in response to those inspections so the site is still out of compliance,” he said.
Acidic discharge was flowing straight out of the mine into the Tulsequah River, the main tributary to the Taku River, Zimmer said. Now it flows into a pond.
As part of its licence, Chieftain Metals had to operate a water treatment plant to clean water coming out of the mine.
The plant operated for six months in 2012 before the company shut it down, saying it couldn’t deal with the higher than anticipated costs and the vast amount of toxic sludge created.
There is a $1.2-million reclamation fund available, but Zimmer isn’t sure whether that money could be used for the acid mine drainage.
That money, he said, was supposed to pay for the cost of plugging the mine and shutting it down for good.
The B.C. government said it will work with the receiver to make sure the environment is protected.
In the meantime, it’s establishing a water monitoring program with Alaska.
Because the Taku River flows into the ocean 13 kilometres from Juneau, there are concerns on the Alaska side of the border about the impacts on the wildlife, salmon in particular.
“The Taku River and its fish are arguably the most important salmon river to southeast Alaska,” Zimmer said.
Juvenile salmon and salmon eggs in particular are very susceptible to minor increases in toxicity, he said.
On Sept. 6, Ontario Superior Court appointed Grant Thornton Ltd. as the receiver for Chieftain Metals, which has $27 million in debt.
According to a report filed to the court by Grant Thornton, Chieftain Metals had been trying to secure new investors since 2012.
Despite contacting hundreds of potential investors and financial institutions, the company wasn’t able to secure the financing required to restart the mine.
Financial statements filed in June show Chieftain Metals has only about $450,000 in cash.
When Chieftain bought the mine in 2011 from Redfern, a company that went bankrupt trying to develop the property, Zimmer said he warned the project wasn’t sustainable.
The company hadn’t figured out one crucial detail: how to get the ore out.
“This is the wrong mine in the wrong place,” Zimmer said. “It’s got no access. There’s no road, (because) the Taku (River Tlingit First Nation) have opposed the road.”
The company had considered taking barges on the river, but the idea came under fire from conservation groups, including Zimmer’s, about the impact it would have on the waterway.
The mine has also only about eight to nine years of ore left. All of this, coupled with falling metal prices, spelled doom for Chieftain Metals.
Contact Pierre Chauvin at firstname.lastname@example.org