The Trouble With Tailings: Toxic Waste ‘Time Bombs’ Loom Large Over Alaska’s Salmon Rivers

Mount Polley dam failure

There are a few unarguable truths about mine tailings, the pulverized rock, water and sludge left over from mineral extraction — mining is a messy business, the leftovers have to be dealt with forever and it’s impossible to guarantee against another tailings dam failure such as the Mount Polley catastrophe.

In B.C., there are 98 tailings storage facilities at 60 metal and coal mines, of which 31 are operating or under construction and the remaining 67 are at mines that are either permanently or temporarily closed

That means communities throughout B.C. and Alaska are looking nervously at nearby tailings ponds, which sometimes more closely resemble lakes, stretching over several square kilometres, with the toxic waste held back by earth and rock-filled dams. The water is usually recycled through the plant when the mine is operating, but, after the mine closes, water, toxins and finely ground rock must continue to be contained or treated.

It’s the realization that tailings have to be treated in perpetuity that worries many of those living downstream, especially as the Mount Polley breach happened only 17 years after the dam was constructed.

The concept of forever boggles people minds. In one thousand years is the bank account still going to be there? These people are going to be dead,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders.

Mount Polley: A Wake-Up Call For Canada’s Mining Industry

Mount Polley Mine Spill

This is a guest post by David Suzuki.

When a tailings pond broke at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in south-central B.C., spilling millions of cubic metres of waste into a salmon-bearing stream, B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett called it an “extremely rare” occurrence, the first in 40 years for mines operating here.

He failed to mention the 46 “dangerous or unusual occurrences” that B.C’s chief inspector of mines reported at tailings ponds in the province between 2000 and 2012, as well as breaches at non-operating mine sites.

This spill was predictable. Concerns were raised about Mount Polley before the breach. CBC reported that B.C.’s Environment Ministry issued several warnings about the amount of water in the pond to mine owner Imperial Metals.

With 50 mines operating in B.C. — and many others across Canada — we can expect more incidents, unless we reconsider how we’re extracting resources.

Debunked: Eight Things the U.S. State Keystone XL Report Got Wrong About the Alberta Oilsands

kris krug oilsands tar sands

Last week the Alberta government responded to the U.S. State Department's final supplemental environmental impact statement (FSEIS) on the Keystone XL project by emphasizing the province's responsibility, transparency, and confidence that the pipeline is in the “national interest” of both Canada and the U.S.

In a statement, Alberta Premier Alison Redford appealed to the relationship between the U.S. and Canada. Premier Redford pointed out that the FSEIS had “recognized the work we're doing to protect the environment,” saying that “the approval of Keystone XL will build upon the deep relationship between our countries and enable further progress toward a stronger, cleaner and more stable North American economy.”

Environment and Sustainable Resource Development Minister Robin Campbell also issued a statement, mentioning Alberta's “strong regulatory system” and “stringent environmental monitoring, regulation and protection legislation.”

Campbell's reminder that the natural resource sector “provides jobs and opportunities for families and communities across the country” was similar to Premier Redford's assurance that “our government is investing in families and communities,” with no mention made of corporate interests.

In order to provide a more specific and sciene-based response to the FSEIS report on Keystone XL, Pembina Institute policy analyst Andrew Read provided counterpoints to several of its central claims.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Challenges Shell in Legal Hearing

Today the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) is arguing that Shell Canada's proposed expansion of the Jackpine Mine in the tar sands is in violation of constitutionally protected aboriginal rights outlined in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution and Treaty 8, which the ACFN signed in 1899. Arguments against the proposal will be heard by a provincial-federal Joint Review Panel.

The ACFN participated in a Fort McMurray rally today, asking for individuals, organizations and communities across Canada to stand in solidarity with their tribe. 

“We are here today because a legal challenge may be the only remaining piece of law that can stop the destruction of our land,” said Allan Adam, chief of the ACFN. “We are thankful for the mountain of support we've been receiving. People understand the significance of this challenge and what we must do for our land.”

The proposed expansion will increase Jackpine Mine's production capacity from 200,000 barrels per day (bbl/d) to 300,000 bbl/d and will extend the mine's lifespan to 2049.

The project will add 1.8 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, roughly the equivalent of 280,000 additional cars on the road. The waste from the expanded project will amount to some 486 billion litres of liquid tailings including mercury, arsenic and lead, which Shell proposes to permanently bury in what is called a 'pit lake,' according to a press release.

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