Government Allows Toxic Mines to Dump in Canadian Lakes

Excerpted from a press release by Catherine Coumans and Maggie Paquet 

On October 18, two lakes in Newfoundland that are habitat to trout, Atlantic salmon, otter, and other species, received a death sentence as the newly amended Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER) went into law. 

In a precedent-setting move, Environment Canada (EC) amended the MMER, a regulation under the Fisheries Act, to allow Aur Resources to dump toxic waste from their copper-zinc-gold mine into Trout Pond and a nearby unnamed lake. Both these lakes are in Newfoundland’s largest watershed, the Exploits River system — a system that has had millions of taxpayer dollars pumped into it for fish habitat restoration. 

This legalized destruction of fish-bearing lakes opens the door to the destruction of other water bodies all across Canada. Mining companies have only to ask the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and Environment Canada for permission, and bingo! they’ve got it. 

Environment Canada confirms that other mine projects in British Columbia, Nunavut, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories will be seeking similar amendments to use lakes as waste dump sites for their mines. 

In response to a request by Aur Resources, EC added the two lakes to Schedule 2 of the MMER. Water bodies listed on Schedule 2 are re-defined as tailings impoundment areas; they are no longer considered to be lakes and, therefore, are no longer protected under the Fisheries Act.

 “Government says the Fisheries Act is intended to protect fish-bearing waters from destruction by mine tailings — certainly the public expects this — but by this regulatory sleight-of-hand, fish-bearing lakes across Canada are no longer protected from destruction by toxic mine waste,” says Dr. Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada, who participated in EC’s regulatory revision process. 

Maggie Paquet, a biologist who also participated in the revision process, says EC seems to have ignored its obligation to review alternative options for tailings management, “and these do exist.” 

Federal officials in EC and DFO defend the amendment, saying that habitat destruction can be compensated for by altering nearby areas to create new fish habitat. 

But independent fish and aquatic habitat experts examined the reports EC and DFO used to justify the amendment and say they are hopelessly inadequate and scientifically inferior, and that no new fish habitat will be created. They say the compensation described could be done under present legislation. 

Dr. John Gibson, a former DFO biologist who knows the area, says, “The two lakes have populations of 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. 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.”

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Contact: M. Paquet: maggie_ paquet@telus.net; C. Coumans: catherine@miningwatch.ca

[From WS November/December 2006]

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