(Canadian OH&S News) — A new report from the B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council (FNEMC) has shone a spotlight on environmental concerns posed by 26 mining operations located at nearly 50 key watersheds in British Columbia.
Published on June 2, Uncertainty Upstream: Potential Threats from Tailings Facility Failures in Northern British Columbia is a 42-page analysis of the potential effects that these mines’ 35 tailings dams could have on the province’s First Nations communities if they fail. The study was spurred by the Mount Polley disaster last August, when a tailings pond collapsed and leaked about 25 million cubic metres of mine waste into the environment.
“Because mining activities take place on Indigenous peoples’ traditional lands and disproportionately impact Indigenous communities, the principle of free, prior and informed consent must be applied in advance of mining operations,” the report read in its executive summary. “A high priority should be placed on protecting entire river, lake and wetland ecosystems from industrial activities.”
The report included six appendices that list the numerous waterways, First Nations communities, other settlements and fish species that could potentially be affected by dam failures among these mines. There were also regional maps of the main watersheds, detailing areas and communities that would suffer adverse effects from dam failures.
According to the research findings, there are 208 cities and settlements in the examined regions in watersheds that either contain tailings dams or are located downstream of them – and 82 per cent of these are within 20 kilometres of a potential contaminant flow path. There are also 33 First Nations communities in watersheds containing or downstream of tailings facilities, 94 per cent of which are located less than 20 kilometres of a potential contaminant flow path.
Among the anadromous fish species that could potentially be affected by contamination are steelhead and five types of salmon, specifically Chinook, chum, Coho, pink and sockeye.
“These anadromous fish species are also important to humans (both as subsistence and economic drivers), as well as the broader ecosystem at large (food for bears and other predators and redistributing nutrients into waterways),” the report read.
FNEMC has been sharing the report with the B.C. government, according to a press release from the organization. It also intends to make the report available to First Nations citizens as a “research tool” to help them understand the risks to their communities.
“This report will assist First Nations to better understand the location of tailings dams in their territories, the habitat and communities downstream of those facilities and the cumulative impacts to their watersheds,” FNEMC CEO Dave Porter said in a press statement upon the report’s release.
On June 3, B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett announced that the government was initiating a review of the provincial mining industry’s health and safety regulations. According to media reports, Bennett said that First Nations representatives would be involved, on an equal footing with both business and labour.
“Their point of view really hasn’t come in to the internal dialogue of government as much as it should have,” Bennett reportedly said, as quoted by the Globe and Mail. “This is a discussion that government needs to have with the industry, with the unions, with First Nations.”
Uncertainty Upstream is available to view online or to download at http://www.fnemc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/BCFNEMC-UncertaintyUpstream-June2015.pdf.