Mine discharge application raises concerns

The Mount Polley Mine application for a permit to discharge effluent into Hazeltine Creek is raising some environmental concerns in area communities.

The Mount Polley Mine application for a permit to discharge effluent into Hazeltine Creek is raising some environmental concerns in area communities. The Ministry of Environment confirmed that the mine applied for the permit in Nov. 2009. Since that time, says Tim Fisch, Mount Polley general manager, the mine has held six public liaison committee meetings in Likely, Big Lake and Williams Lake and held consultations with First Nations. Kirk Dressler, communications co-ordinator for the Williams Lake Indian Band, said the community has concerns and is currently involved in a technical review of the discharge permit.

“Obviously any discharge, particularly into a watershed that is critical habitat for traditional First Nations practices, is of significant concern to us so we want to make sure that the impacts are going to be minimized,” he said, adding to date the WLIB have been unable to conclude whether the discharge will result in “significant” detrimental impacts.

Dressler said that is because the consultant hired by the WLIB did not take into account the separate and recently approved amendment to the mine that leaves the facility’s production rate unchanged but increases its footprint by 15 per cent.

“So despite the fact that he came to some conclusions he really didn’t entertain the prospects of further expansion and so that potentially could have changed as a result, as well, which causes us some concern,” Dressler said.

Some residents of Likely are also on edge, wondering if the discharge permit could compromise the creek and potentially Quesnel Lake.  According to resident Erin Robinson, many in the community thought the permit to discharge was off the table following consultation in 2009 when Robinson says it was made clear that the community did not want the discharge permit approved.  She said there is a concern among community members for water quality in the creek and lake and the potential impact of mine discharge on the health of salmon runs, tourism, fishing, hunting and recreation activities in the area.

Robinson added baseline data needs to be collected, as well as a detailed monitoring and contingency plan put in place.

For his part, Fisch said he’s confident there is “adequate” base-line data to support the findings of the technical assessment requirements by the Ministry of Environment. He further indicated that monitoring would be conducted in accordance with the federal metal mining effluent regulations, which examine aquatic life to determine whether mine discharge has impacted species. There has also been a collection of data for Hazeltine Creek to be used as a benchmark for the water body before discharge, as well as a reference point throughout.  Robinson said she had hoped the mine would remain a closed system, which would mean that no effluent would be released.

Although it is currently closed — the mine is required to capture and store all of its precipitation/runoff from disturbed areas of the site in its tailings storage facility — Fisch says a closed system is difficult as the mine accumulates more water than it can use in a year due to its location in a “net-positive” precipitation zone. Therefore, he said, the amount of runoff requires dam raises and prohibits the formation of proper tailings beaches which could increase seepage and cause conditions that are “geotechnically unstable.”

Robinson further questions the province’s water quality guidelines as it relates to mine discharge.

“They are saying there are certain guidelines that if you fall under this parts per million or whatever then you’re safe.”

According to Mount Polley, discharge effluent will consist of treated mine water containing elements that occur naturally in the Quesnel Lake watershed and would not include man-made chemicals.  In August, the provincial government approved a separate permit amendment for Mount Polley that would allow it to continue its current production rate until 2015.  According to the company, the amendment is not considered an expansion but an acceptance of a five-year mine plan during which the mine’s production rate remains the same as was permitted in 1997; under the amendment, the mine’s footprint will increase by 15 per cent.

At the time, the Williams Lake Indian Band indicated it was unhappy with the process and suggested there was a lack of consultation between itself and the Crown on the amendment. The WLIB has since said it will pursue action prior to the mine leases being granted.

“We’re pursuing that and hope and expect that the gold commissioner will respect our concerns and that there be no further action in relation to the expansion until our concerns are dealt with,” Dressler said.

“We would expect that the mineral leases would not be issued for Mount Polley until the concerns of the WLIB are addressed. In particular we are emphatic that a traditional-use study should be conducted before the expansion can take place,” he said.