Risks escalating due to more frequent catastrophic climate change-related weather events
July 14, 2022
The waste created by British Columbia’s accelerating mining boom is a growing threat to communities and watersheds throughout the province, according to a new report released today. The increase in extreme weather events brought on by climate change intensifies this threat: severe flooding is one of the main causes of tailings dam failure at mine sites around the world.
The report, by Dr. Steven Emerman, a respected geophysicist and international expert specializing in groundwater and mining, coincides with the publication of an interactive online map that fills a knowledge gap by providing communities with easier access to critical information about the risks that billions of cubic metres of toxic liquid mine waste, called tailings, pose to them and the environment.
The tailings are known to contain a range of toxic elements including arsenic, cyanide, mercury, selenium, and other heavy metals harmful to human health and the environment. They are stored behind some of the highest dams in the world – and there are plans to build even more throughout B.C.
New Data + Analysis
Dr. Emerman analyzed B.C. government and industry data for 86 mine sites with tailing: 57 mines that are closed or under care and maintenance, 18 that are operating, and 11 proposed.
Among Emerman’s key findings are:
- The death toll following a failure at many of the highest risk dams could be in the hundreds and could irreparably destroy salmon habitat, commercial farms, and vital infrastructure.
- Communities in the Fraser River watershed, including Abbotsford, Burnaby, Coquitlam, Delta, Richmond, Surrey and Vancouver are at risk. For example, a dam breach at just one of the tailings facilities at Highland Valley Copper in the Fraser Basin, with a dam capacity equal to 480,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, could devastate communities far downstream.
- The quantity of tailings currently being stored at B.C. mines is conservatively estimated to be 2.5 billion cubic metres, equivalent to the volume of one million Olympic-size swimming pools. This volume is expected to increase by 75 per cent with the addition of 11 new mines.
- Catastrophic flooding has become a regular event in B.C. and has the potential to destabilize tailings storage facilities in high rainfall areas. This is a major cause of dam failures globally.
- Several large tailings storage facilities in B.C. are in high-risk earthquake zones, which adds to the threat of dams being breached.
- Recent B.C. government data shows the number of operating coal and metal mines in B.C. will double over the coming years to meet the growing demand for raw materials to transition the global economy away from carbon.
Bigger Dams Mean Bigger Threats to People and Watersheds
The height of B.C. tailings dams has grown exponentially in recent years, allowing mines to add hundreds of millions of cubic metres of tailings to storage facilities. B.C. already has some of the highest tailings dams in the world. Several proposed new mines would add to the total.
- In southern B.C. the owners of the Copper Mountain copper mine near Princeton on the Similkameen River plan to increase the height of one tailings dam to 260 metres – 60 metres higher than Vancouver’s tallest building the Shangri-la tower. This would make the Copper Mountain Mine tailings dams the second and third tallest in the world.
- The sheer volume of the mine tailings looming over the Similkameen is deeply concerning, earning the Copper Mountain Mine a ranking in the “Dirty Dozen” mines for poor environmental practices and non-compliance with B.C.’s environmental regulations.
- In northern B.C., the tailings dam at the proposed KSM mine near the Alaska border could rise to 239 metres – 38 metres taller than the Shangri-la tower – and hold back up to 1.15 billion cubic metres of tailings, equivalent to the capacity of 460,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The interactive online map and report were commissioned by the BC Mining Law Reform network in partnership with SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
“Dr. Emerman’s analysis shows the level of risk British Columbians and our U.S. downstream neighbours face from existing and planned mining operations in the province. Mining companies need to be reducing their tailings volumes—not increasing them—and designing tailings facilities to meet internationally accepted safety standards and withstand increasing climate change impacts. It’s on the B.C. government to ensure this happens before we face another major mining disaster.”
Adrienne Berchtold, Ecologist & Mining Impacts Researcher, SkeenaWild Conservation Trust
“The Mount Polley mine disaster was a wake-up call to B.C.’s mining companies and the province. This map and report show that the risks to the environment and communities from tailings dams are still high and growing. More action is needed to follow through and get B.C. on a path to zero failures—from cutting the inventory in half, to phasing out certain mine dam construction methods. The government needs to act now to improve safety standards as mining continues to expand in the province.”
Jamie Kneen, Canada Program Co-lead, MiningWatch Canada, Co-Chair of BC Mining Law Reform
Reaction to the Report
First Nations Energy and Mining Council (FNEMC):
“FNEMC has profiled in our analysis how dozens of First Nations communities could be impacted by tailings failures just in Northern British Columbia. This new report from BC Mining Law Reform (BCMLR) and SkeenaWild illustrates how the risks to First Nations in British Columbia are growing. FNEMC is deeply concerned about the management of tailings facilities in B.C., especially in light of more flooding from climate change. The B.C. government must engage directly with Nations that could be impacted by a failure of a tailings dam to avoid the disaster we’ve already seen with Mount Polley.
“FNEMC also welcomes BCMLR’s new interactive online map which will fill the knowledge gap to help equip communities with information about mining activity in their territories.”
- Adrienne Berchtold, SkeenaWild Conservation Trust, firstname.lastname@example.org, (778) 887-0634
- Nikki Skuce, Director, Northern Confluence Initiative, Co-Chair of BC Mining Law Reform, email@example.com, (778) 210-0117
- Stephen Emerman, Report Author and Owner, Malach Consulting, firstname.lastname@example.org, (801) 921-1228