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General · 24th October 2010
Ray Grigg
Anyone who thinks a proposal for a new or expanded mine is inconsequential should think again. Since most mines are temporary, the short-term economic benefits they offer may hide more environmental trouble than communities, citizens and their governments imagined was possible. This is why every conceivable precaution must be taken to warrant against environmental damage from mines – and even that may not be enough.

Failure to take necessary precautionary measures is one of the most astounding and bewildering lapses in all levels of government, whether federal, provincial, city or municipal. Their propensity for unnecessary environmental risks could be explained by their reflexive inclination to be optimistic, to hope for the best when a mining corporation arrives with its temptation of economic opportunity. But a better explanation for inviting environmental disaster is gullibility, the failure to recognize that corporate assurances are usually opportunistic, self-serving and conditional. Another explanation is ineptitude, that innocent obliviousness that comes from failing to learn from precedent.

And we have precedent. Lots of it. Mining's history is replete with too many examples of small and monumental environmental disasters. Just connect the recent inundation of Hungary with 700 million cubic metres of escaped aluminum mine tailings and to Roman mines that are still leaking acids and heavy metals after 2,000 years.

These environmental horror stories should serve as an object lesson for caution. For the Vancouver area, it's the Britannia fiasco in Howe Sound. For Vancouver Island, it's the Tsolum River and the grievous consequences of a short lived copper mine on Mount Washington. Both these mines set the conditions for acid drainage. When the owners abandoned their responsibilities, the public was forced to spend millions of dollars trying to mitigate the damage. And the Campbell River nearly lost its world-famous salmon due to acid and heavy metal emissions from the Myra Falls mine.

Beside the Campbell is the Quinsam River watershed, now endangered by the leaching of sulphate, arsenic and manganese from nearby Quinsam Coal, a corporation that has been unable to curtail its pollution and continues to deny culpability against overwhelming evidence that its operations are the source of an escalating environmental problem. Now, after failing to control its present sulphate and arsenic leaching, it wants to expand its operations to dirtier coal with an increased likelihood of even more serious pollution.

But this is coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, the world's largest single contributor to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and a commodity that is plentiful from much safer sites. Why risk permanent damage to a valuable local ecology and imperil the natural assets of a community for a commodity that should be phased out of use anyway?

Perhaps the "mother of all object lessons" about the dangers of mining is brewing under Johannesburg in South Africa. This modern city of nearly 4 million people achieved fame and fortune from 120 years of gold mining. The search for gold, now mostly ended, has left hundreds of abandoned mine shafts honeycombed beneath the city. These shafts are filling with water, the water is dissolving minerals and the result is a corrosive and contaminated subterranean ocean slowly rising toward the surface. A recent report in The Globe & Mail (Sept. 21/10) referred to the situation as "a nightmare of biblical proportions" and "South Africa's own Chernobyl".

The water is presently about 550 metres below the surface and rising at 0.35 to 1.0 metres per day. At 150 metres, the acids will start causing sink holes and small earthquakes. As it approaches the surface, it will begin to dissolve the concrete foundations of buildings and reinforcing steel. It will contaminate drinking water and spread radiation from old uranium mines. Millions of litres of this acid mine drainage has already surfaced in several places outside the city, threatening rivers and wildlife reserves – two hippos are believed to be going blind from wallowing in this acidic brew.

As a short-term corrective strategy, Johannesburg is spending $30 million on pumping stations. This may save buildings if enough water can be removed from the corrosive ocean rising beneath their foundations. But pumping will not solve the other looming problems. The acid water, whether pumped or not, has to go somewhere. But where? And must it be perpetually pumped and treated? Johannesburg has about 15 months to solve a problem that seems unsolvable.

So, when Quinsam Coal contemplates storing coarse coal rejects and other mining debris in flooded open pits and underground mining shafts, everyone who cares for anything beyond corporate quarterly profits should get nervous. Indeed, people who live in the region have legitimate reasons for concern. They can't dismiss reality, disregard possible inevitabilities and disappear into legal oblivion like a corporation. These people are responsible and caring neighbours and families who have invested their energy, security and lifestyles in a community generously endowed with natural beauty. No government or corporation has the right to risk this richness.