Critics calling for the closure of Minto mine are being irresponsible, says Stephen Quin, CEO of Capstone Mining Corporation.
From July to the end of October, the mine will have disgorged 1 million litres of wastewater into the Yukon River. That’s enough to fill 402 Olympic-size swimming pools, and it’s discharged at a rate of 10 million litres, or four Olympic pools, per day.
The Selkirk Renewable Resources Committee is worried these discharges may harm fish. The committee, which is made up of members appointed by the Selkirk First Nation and the territory, advises governments on environmental issues. Last week, it recommended the territory shut Minto until its water usage is under control.
Quin has a one-word response to this critique: “Rubbish.”
The water, which drained into the minesite during an especially heavy spring melt, cannot simply be left on site, he said. If it stays until freeze-up, they run the risk of being overwhelmed by the next spring runoff.
Containment walls could breach, and then the Yukon would face a real environmental catastrophe.
“People who want to stick their heads in the sand and do nothing, it doesn’t work. Because the water is there, it has to be dealt with. The site can only contain so much water,” Quin said.
The current discharge is being treated to ensure it meets federal mining standards, which are less stringent than the mine’s water licence.
And naturally occurring water near the mine is far from pristine. It, too, wouldn’t meet the water licence conditions because of its high levels of floating copper solids, said Quin.
“It’s many times higher than federal standards, let alone our water licence standards.”
That’s why the mine is currently petitioning the water board to alter its licence to relax its water-quality conditions.
Quin’s operation stands accused of polluting for profit. Yet, if this were so, says Quin, the mine would not have bothered to flood its main mining pit with excess water, which has prevented the operation from milling its high-grade copper and eaten into profits.
If Minto were as rapacious as it is accused of being, it would have dumped the water without waiting for permission from the water board for an emergency discharge, said Quin.
Instead, it played by the rules and waited for permission to release the water, he said.
However, the water board has scolded the mine for apparent abuse of emergency discharge applications as a means of dodging a public meeting.
Minto made a similar emergency application a year ago. And the most recent application also asked for permission to discharge wastewater in the spring of 2010. The board said no to this second request.
Quin expects critics may not listen to him, but he advises them to pay heed to the experts at the water board who plowed through various agency submissions and concluded the discharge would be safe.
“The water board took all the information and made a decision,” said Quin. “If people don’t believe the water board, then we have a bigger problem in the Yukon.
“That’s the independent assessment of the regulator. Neither them nor we would want to do anything to jeopardize the environment.”
But experts disagree.
In its submission, Environment Canada suggested the discharge would harm the health of juvenile salmon found near the bend of the Yukon River into which the mine’s discharges flow.
The Selkirk RRC’s criticism selectively picks from Environment Canada’s submission, which is the most damning of the submitted comments, said Quin, noting it was alone in recommending the water board reject the mine’s application to discharge.
In its decision, the water board never says why it rejected Environment Canada’s advice.
And the mine is taking precautions to prevent harming fish. It is building a fence, which should be erected within a month, to keep fish out of the creek near the mine.
The mine is also preparing to build a better water-treatment plant. Its current facility is only capable of processing one-tenth of the water it is currently releasing, and it only works some of the time.
The current mess is largely a product of inaccurate baseline data the mine inherited, said Quin.
When it was built, Minto expected the mine would not have enough water. Instead, it has too much.
This, and other problems, should be fixed by a new water-management plan the mine has submitted to regulators. The plan has not yet been released to public scrutiny, but it includes building the new water plant, using new water figures and digging ditches to divert water away from the site.
“It costs us a lot of money to do this,” said Quin.
“It’s unjust to suggest the company is doing this to sacrifice the environment for profits when the opposite is the truth. Unfortunately there’s a whole lot of misinformation floating around. And people are getting fired up about the misinformation.”
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