The following are excerpts taken from the Jan/Feb issue of Water Canada magazine, “How is mining’s legacy affecting water in Canada’s north?” by Mia Bennett
With pickaxes and pans in hand, tens of thousands of people flooded the Yukon in 1896 in search of gold in its snowy creeks.
I’ve included two really great videos on the Alaska (Klondike) gold rush at the end of this blog.
Three years later, the rush came to an abrupt end as miners left for Alaska. Fast forward to 1991, when diamonds were discovered in the Northwest Territories’ (NWT’s) Slave Geological Province. This discovery set off a mining boom in northern Canada that continues today. According to the Mining Association of Canada, companies are expected to invest $140 billion over the next ten years in search of minerals like diamonds, gold, and iron, primarily in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, but also in the Yukon. In the barren, remote expanse of Canada’s circumpolar region – only 100,000 people live across the three territories – oversight and regulation is difficult. This is particularly problematic as climate change renders many current mining standards inadequate. Lakes and streams scattered across the tundra are vulnerable to destruction, leachate, and tailings. As the rush for northern metals and minerals continues, good planning and tough oversight by mining companies, indigenous stakeholders and government are necessary to protect water resources.
Damage done – Mine construction can wreak havoc before the by-products of mining even have a chance to pollute the environment. In 1998, BHP Billiton opened the Ekati Diamond Mine, Canada’s first combined underground and surface diamond mine, in the NWT’s Lac de Gras area. To reach the diamond-strewn kimberlite pipes sitting underneath shallow crater lakes, the company dewatered and fully or partially impacted nineteen lakes and additional streams. The company was also permitted to store rocks and manage pit water in Desperation Pond, used by Arctic grayling (a freshwater fish) for spawning, rearing, forage, and overwintering.
While the company paid Fisheries and Oceans Canada $1.5 million to recreate lost lake habitat, the new lakes did not equal the original ones in health and biodiversity. In one artificial habitat, colder stream water and paltrier vegetation resulted in Arctic grayling that had, on average, less than half as much mass as their counterparts in natural streams. Northern fish species reproduce and grow slowly and are especially sensitive to pollutants, making lake destruction even more harmful than in the south. Moreover, many fish stocks provide commercial value to fishermen and nutritional value to indigenous peoples…Randy Hart, Mining Watch Canada’s program coordinator, suggests that an alternative, though more expensive, way to deal with tailings might be to store them on land in a cement-like, hardened form. “This allows you to have a close to walk-away situation, where you aren’t also destroying a lake ecosystem,” he says.
Changing paradigms – Indigenous pressure has helped enact stricter oversight of mines. During negotiations over Ekati, First Nations organizations got BHP Billiton to agree to fund the creation of an Independent Environmental Monitoring Agency (IEMA) to oversee their management of the surrounding environment. BHP Billiton also developed a Watershed Adaptive Management Plan. When the IEMA discovered that nearby Kodiak Lake had begun eutrophying due to sewage deposition, making oxygen levels dangerously low for fish, the company was asked to aerate the lake. The fish were able to survive another season. When oxygen levels dropped a second time, the company began depositing its sewage elsewhere. While adaptive management requires consistent environmental monitoring, problems can often be stopped before they get out of hand… Regulations are nothing without enforcement. “Recently, we discovered that Capstone Mining was told by Yukon Government Client Services & Inspections that they were allowed to contravene their water license,” says Karen Baltgailis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society. She doesn’t think that any environmental damage occurred, but still has worries. “The fact that our regulators can’t be depended upon to ensure that mining does not cause impacts to our water is a really big concern.” Hart observes that in Nunavut, while the land claims agreement specifies a regional monitoring program, instead there is what he calls a “hodge-podge of project-specific monitoring that goes on based on company needs as opposed to broader, territory-wide needs.” He adds that the same could be said largely for other regions of the north. Hart believes that if a regional baseline monitoring organization were instituted, that would actually provide a “huge advantage” to companies, which otherwise have to start from scratch each time when considering cumulative impacts and regional issues. While weak enforcement is a harder problem to tackle than the lack of monitoring, even when violations are discovered, the fines are often not very high. In 2008, 4.5 million litres of processed kimberlite overflowed a containment wall at Etaki, flooding the nearby tundra and frozen Fay Lake. CBC News reported that BHP Billiton might have to pay “hefty fines of up to $100,000”— pennies compared to the company’s profits…The dangers – Mine drainage – A bigger hazard to aquatic ecosystems is acid mine drainage, which occurs when water comes into contact with sulphide bearing rocks or tailings. The resulting sulphuric acid oxidizes metals like copper and zinc, rendering the water metal bearing and acidic. Acid mine drainage is especially a problem in underground mines. These are often located below the water table, so water has to be continually pumped out. Once a mine is abandoned, pumping often ceases and allows leachwater to flow out. Pollution of groundwater sources is risky in places like Yukon, where aquifers underlay two-thirds of the territory. Whereas pollution of surface water can sometimes be contained, contaminated groundwater can spread extensively. Fortunately, in many northern underground mines such as Nunavut’s closed Polaris Zinc Mine, permafrost prevents acid mine drainage, as all the surrounding water is frozen in the rocks and soil. But as temperatures climb, intrusion of water into underground mines with sulfuric rocks could become problematic… Threats to oceans – At the same time as melting permafrost is hindering mining on land, melting sea ice is creating new opportunities – and risks – at sea. On Baffin Island, Nunavut, the planned Mary River Iron Ore Mine would use nine ice breaking freighters year-round to transport iron ore through the Northwest Passage, potentially disturbing the shore, icepack, and marine mammals. Hart asserts, “It’s the most significant marine transportation project that’s ever been proposed for the Canadian Arctic, massively increasing shipping traffic. Along with shipping comes chronic low-level pollution from small oil spills and bilge water. We often focus on massive spills and shipwrecks, but from my understanding, a significant amount of oil and contaminants is released into the marine environment on an ongoing basis outside of major catastrophes.”…
After the gold rush – Like the gold rush a century ago, the current boom will end one day, too, and proper de-commissioning plans need to be prepared. There are 10,000 abandoned mines across all of Canada in various states of disrepair. The grandiose names of contaminated sites in the north represent ghostly boom towns of decades past: Discovery Mine, Giant Mine, Port Radium Mine. At various sites, mining has left behind a wasteland of radioactive tailings, cyanide-laced water, and sediment plumes…The Canadian Arctic is so sparsely populated and so far from most people’s minds that the adage, “out of sight, out of mind,” too often rings true, especially once a mine is closed. If an operator declares bankruptcy, however, the costs of decommissioning can be passed on to the taxpayers, hitting closer to home…The mining industry has demonstrated a more progressive approach to water management than in the early twentieth century. This is in part thanks to the involvement of indigenous people’s and stronger government regulations. For all its faults, Agnico-Eagle serves as an example of one company that has put forth some efforts to reduce its impact on the environment. Connell notes that all of its operations now require water management strategies…
Harmonizing economy, environment, and technology – Given the region’s low population base and lack of alternative industries like agriculture or manufacturing, mining plays an important role in northern economic development. Profits and water quality, however, do not need to be a zero-sum game. Technology now exists to make operations safer for the environment.
Moreover, in the territories, development has generally proceeded hastily without an eye towards long-term sustainability. It’s easily forgotten that mining is temporary, while both humans and nature will rely on surrounding waters indefinitely. One day, the temperature could rise high enough that even precautions like Meadowbank’s “worst-case scenario” tailings cover are inadequate. But in the near future, if the right balance is struck between conservation and development, we can avoid a legacy of overflowing tailings ponds and acidic rivers and instead enable clean, productive northern waters and fisheries. The consequences of not doing so will far outlast any profits.
1898 Alaska Klondike Gold Rush Story, Dawson City, Yukon River, published on Oct 26, 2012 by Jeffrey Martin ~ Segment of a short 1950s film that was called ‘City of Gold’ about Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush in the Alaska / Yukon Canada area. This is the first half of a prior posted segment that can be used with the Alaska Goldmine ice-breaker class exercise.
The Klondike Gold Rush: Photographs from 1896-98, uploaded on Apr 17, 2008 ~ This spectacular video is based on the best-selling book “The Klondike Gold Rush: Photographs from 1896-1899.” by Graham Wilson. This is the mother lode of the north – a stunning record of the last great gold rush.