More work needed to understand potential impacts of waste storage, industry-funded review finds. More work is required before anyone knows how an estimated 300-million tonnes of tailings from the proposed Red Chris mine will eventually affect water in the upper Stikine watershed of northwest B.C., concludes a confidential industry-funded review acquired by The Tyee.
The report, paid for by mine owner Imperial Metals at the urging of the Tahltan Nation, recommends a comprehensive field investigation including additional drilling, groundwater collection and monitoring wells be undertaken as a way of addressing existing information gaps.
“…Studies completed to date are not sufficiently detailed to fully assess/monitor potential environmental impacts due to seepage from the tailings storage facility on the downstream aquatic environment,” concludes the study presented early this year to a panel of First Nations, government and industry overseeing the permitting of the proposed mine, which is scheduled to begin operations by May 2014.
The report comes years after Red Chris received environmental approval from B.C. and the federal government — the latter the subject of a drawn-out legal battle with environmentalists that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Some see the report as a wake-up call for the British Columbia government — in particular its practice of approving environmental assessments and other permits for large industrial projects before important details of environmental safety are well understood.
“It makes you wonder how this project ever got through B.C.’s environmental assessment process,” says environmental consultant and former geologist Tony Pearse, who has participated in over two dozen environmental assessments of mining projects in western Canada.
“Will this thing hold water? That’s a critical question to answer before you give a project like this environmental approval.”
When do studies need to be done?
Tailings generated by the Red Chris mine — a collection of fine crushed rock, water and chemicals from the mine’s mill — will eventually be deposited into a Y-shaped valley bottom, contained at each end by large dams. The tailings storage facility as planned straddles the headwaters of three local watersheds, and is downstream of both the Klappan river and a chain of large lakes draining into the Iskut River. Containing potentially acid-generating rock, much of the tailings will need to be submerged in water for “perpetuity.”
A B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines spokesman confirmed the report recommendations will be “fully implemented” — including work around the south dam to ensure wells drilled to intercept flows of potentially-contaminated groundwater will function as planned.
“We did this third party review as an act of good faith and good community relations, but we did not feel it was necessary from a scientific perspective,” says Steve Robertson, exploration manager for Vancouver’s Imperial Metals. “What that report said was, ‘You guys aren’t done yet, you have more work to do,’ just as we knew we did.”
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