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Where Have All The Fishes Gone?

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Issue: 41 Section: Environment Geography: Atlantic Newfoundland Topics: Mining, water, habitat, fisheries

December 5, 2006

Where Have All The Fishes Gone?

Newfoundland losing lakes to mining waste

by Tracy Glynn

Lake-trout-web.jpg
The reclassification of the two lakes in Newfoundland marks the first time that Schedule 2 was used to allow a known fish-bearing water body to be used as a tailings impoundment area. photo: Maretarium
The death knell of Trout Pond and an unnamed lake in central Newfoundland's Exploits River headwaters sounded quietly on October 18. The two lakes became the first casualties of Environment Canada's amendment to the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER)--a regulation under the Fisheries Act--that adds these water bodies to the list under 'Schedule 2.' Schedule 2 allows the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Environment Canada to exempt the companies from the law that protects fish habitat, notably Section 35 and Section 36(3) of the Fisheries Act, which prohibit the harmful alteration or destruction of fish habitat and the deposit of deleterious (toxic or harmful) substances into waters inhabited by fish. Mining companies need only get water bodies added to the Schedule 2 list to legalize the use of natural water bodies as 'tailings impoundment areas' or mine waste disposal sites.

DFO and Environment Canada officials are justifying the amendments by altering nearby areas to create new fish habitat as part of an 'environmental compensation plan.'

The threats of this amendment to Newfoundland's largest watershed, the Exploits River system--one of the most visited natural destinations in the province--has many concerned, including Dr. John Gibson, a former DFO biologist who lives in Newfoundland. Gibson knows the two lakes that have recently been added to Schedule 2 to be used by Aur Resources' Duck Pond copper and zinc mining operation. He notes that, "The two lakes have populations of Atlantic salmon and trout, and associated wildlife, such as beavers, otters, and waterfowl, all of which will be poisoned. The life of the mine is expected to be six years, but the ponds will become toxic waste sites in perpetuity. Over that time, there is a possibility that there will be leakage of copper and zinc, which are toxic to fish, and if the retaining dam breaks there will be massive mortality of salmon down the Exploits River."

Gibson reviewed the mining company's environmental compensation plan and calls it, "totally inadequate and merely an excuse to allow the mine to pollute the two lakes. Trout Pond has effectively been privatized for the mining company to use as a toxic waste dump. The Fisheries Act, previously held in esteem, has been considerably weakened."

The Trout Pond Action Group, a local coalition of concerned individuals and environmental groups from across Newfoundland, contends that Aur Resources, the local Environment Canada Environmental Protection Branch, the Newfoundland Department of Environment and Labour, and the DFO did not fulfill their legal obligations to examine properly alternative mine waste disposal options. The group does not believe that the best option is sacrificing Trout Pond and putting the Exploits River at risk. Exploits River has had $30 million of federal money invested in it to enhance salmon habitat.

Previously, artificial impoundments were the accepted method of disposing of mine waste; critics of the plan worry that mining companies are finding the practice too expensive and have chosen to go back to the old days of dumping waste in natural water bodies. At the Louvicourt copper-zinc mine in Quebec, where Aur Resources is a 30 per cent owner as well as the mine manager, man-made structures hold the mine waste. Aur Resources and Canadian regulatory authorities have called it a viable alternative to the destruction of fresh water bodies.

But Maggie Paquet, a biologist in British Columbia who participated in the revision process of the MMER, says, "We reviewed all the public documents made available to us and could find no evidence that Environment Canada provided any advice to Aur Resources about less-damaging waste disposal technologies at this mine."

Pages 23 to 25 of the project's 2001 Environmental Impact Statement contains 11 lines of text, one map, and one chart based on a Multiple Account Analysis that concludes that the destruction of Trout Pond is the best alternative for mine waste disposal. This conclusion appears not to have been challenged by any of the provincial or federal government reviews of the project's environmental assessment.

Aur Resources bought the majority of the mine property in 2002 and mulled over ways to minimize costs to exploit their small but rich deposit. Aur finally made the decision to go ahead with the current plan in December 2004. What is not known is whether a bond has been posted that is adequate to cover costs of perpetual monitoring of ground and surface waters around the mine and perpetual maintenance of the dams to keep the highly acidic and toxic mine waste from contaminating the Exploits River watershed.

These are just some of the issues that The Trout Pond Action Group say should have been addressed in public consultations. Meagre public consultations regarding this project occurred several years ago and reached few people. They were conducted before mining regulations and standards were amended in 2002. Many affected parties, including residents, recreational fishermen, tourism industry workers and aboriginal groups, were not informed about the potential environmental impacts of this project. Aur Resources did not have to hold new consultations when it took over the mine. Environment Canada employees Chris Doiron and Patrick Finlay of the Mines and Minerals Branch claim they did not become aware of the project's intention to use Trout Pond as a mine waste disposal site until February 2005. There are concerns that the amendment revision process to include Trout Pond and the other lake on Schedule 2 was hastened to accommodate Aur Resources' desire to start operations in 2006.

Trout Pond is not the first natural water body in Canada to be used as a tailings impoundment area. For decades, mining companies dumped waste in a number of water bodies across Canada. But in 2002, changes under the Fisheries Act aimed at restricting the practice were passed.

Schedule 2 was also added to the MMER in 2002. This happened without any wide public consultation. Schedule 2 legalized historic mines' use of lakes--ostensibly, those lakes were non-fish-bearing arctic and alpine lakes--and also allowed new mines to dump waste into fish-bearing waters. The reclassification of the two lakes in Newfoundland marks the first time that Schedule 2 was used to allow a known fish-bearing water body to be used as a tailings impoundment area.

Environment Canada confirms that at least nine other mine projects in British Columbia, Nunavut, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories are seeking similar amendments to use lakes for waste disposal.

Environmental organizations and some First Nations are currently considering legal interventions to do away with Schedule 2 before more mining companies sacrifice freshwater lakes and fish-bearing water bodies.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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