Two decommissioned copper mines that continue to discharge mine-impacted water into Babine Lake, lack proper monitoring and government regulations, says a report released by researchers with SkeenaWild Conservation Trust in partnership with the Lake Babine Nation.
The report, released last month by the trust, has discovered that the two open-pit mines — Bell and Granisle mines, have been out of commission for several years and yet continue to discharge treated and untreated mine-impacted water into the Babine Lake, that could potentially affect the aquatic life in the lake, especially the sockeye salmon, a major food source for many.
“We heard particularly from Indigenous groups like Lake Babine Nation that there is some concerns, questions, people weren’t really sure whether the mines were being monitored adequately, whether there are potential impacts to the lake, so we wanted to take a look at the monitoring data that is available over the past few years just to see whether we can find any red flags and what we ended up finding was bigger than that. There are larger overarching problems with how the mines are regulated and monitored. We also found evidence of aquatic impacts,” said Adrienne Berchtold, ecologist and mining impacts researcher with the trust.
According to the report, the current permits regulating discharges from Bell and Granisle mines are limited in extent and stringency. The provincial government is responsible for giving permits to the mines to release certain amount of impacted water into local streams and lakes.
The report found that the Granisle mine site does not have any volume or quality limits applied to its multiple discharge sources. One source of Granisle’s discharge to the lake had average copper concentrations 20 times higher than the provincial guideline and nearly 250 times higher than the threshold for negative effects to salmon reported in the scientific literature.
Permits for Bell mine allow high discharge concentrations of some harmful contaminants such as copper, iron, and zinc and leave many other contaminants – such as aluminum, cadmium, and selenium, all of which are known to harm salmon at elevated concentrations – completely unregulated. Discharge permits for Bell mine allow metal concentrations up to 25 times higher than provincial water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life.
According to Berchtold, while the findings are not a secret and could be found in the monitoring reports written by the company Glencore Canada Corporation, they are difficult to get access to as a lot of those reports aren’t made public.
“We found that the sediment in the lake has quite an elevated level of copper and the water quality near the mines is elevated in copper and sulphates. We also found that the tissues in the fish in the lake, have elevations of a number of metals and in the cases of some metals like copper and cadmium, the elevations are above levels that are known to be frequently associated with negative effects such as their sensory abilities could get impacted, often that would mean they have trouble finding food, trouble avoiding gradation and sometimes metal contamination can affect their reproduction as well,” said Berchtold.
The report discovered that the aquatic monitoring program of Babine Lake also contains significant gaps that severely limit the monitoring information obtained and tracking of mine-related aquatic impacts.
The report raises concerns that these mines could be impacting the salmon in Babine lake and in the long term would have serious impacts on the salmon run as the lake provides for 90 per cent of the watershed’s sockeye salmon. However, lack of focused monitoring on sockeye salmon has resulted in insufficient data and gaps in information to determine the effects on the food fish.
Greg Knox, executive director of the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust said, “Sockeye salmon really is the foundation of food fishing for First Nations, for the commercial fishery and also supports the recreational fisheries in the Skeena system and we need pressure to change practices at these mine sites to ensure that salmon in Babine lake are protected.”
“Our hope is to start a dialogue, catch the attention of the mining companies and the government to discuss how the monitoring of these closed mines can be improved. Increasing awareness and getting as many voices behind us is sort of the hope,” said Berchtold.