BC mines raise ire of environmentalists
Province celebrates sixth new mine, conservation groups decry issuance of final Red Chris permit, vow to slow momentum at KSM
Last updated 1/26/2018 at 2:50pm
The Red Chris copper-gold mine in northwestern British Columbia has received final approvals necessary for commercial operation, marking the sixth new mine to open in the western province since 2011.
“This is a significant achievement made possible through a tremendous amount of collaboration between Imperial Metals Corp., the Tahltan Central Council and this government,” B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said June 19 while announcing full production at Red Chris. “This mine will provide hundreds of good-paying jobs for members of the Tahltan Nation and residents of the nearby communities.”
While British Columbia is celebrating the jobs and revenue another mine will bring to the province, conservationists and others in Southeast Alaska are worried about the downstream repercussions of this success.
“Red Chris is one of several B.C. mines proposed for the transboundary region straddling Alaska that have raised the public’s ire,” said two Southeast Alaska conservation groups, United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group and Salmon Beyond Borders, in a joint statement.
Another six projects in northwestern B.C. – Brucejack (Pretium Resources), Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (Seabridge Gold), Tulsequah Chief (Chieftain Metals), Schaft Creek (Copper Fox Metals-Teck Resources), Galore Creek (Novagold-Teck) and Kisault (Avanti Mining) – are in various stages of advanced exploration.
Of these, the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) has received its permits and is a primary target of environmental groups.
Rob Sanderson Jr., co-chair of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, claims “the B.C. government is ignoring the rights and concerns of those of us who live in Southeast Alaska” when issuing permits for upstream mines.
Southeast Alaska conservation groups point to last year’s failure of a tailings storage facility at Imperial’s Mount Polley Mine in central B.C. as evidence that broader oversight, such as the International Joint Commission, is needed.
Red Chris milestone
Commissioning of Red Chris began under conditional permits at the beginning of 2015. By March, Imperial Metals Corp., owner of the new mine, reported that the first shipments of copper concentrate were being trucked to the Port of Stewart in northwestern British Columbia.
The project, however, needed an amended environmental management act permit in order to discharge into the tailings storage facility and release treated water from the facility, an authorization issued by the B.C. government on June 12.
“Receipt of our final Mines Act permit at Red Chris is another milestone in our path toward establishing Imperial as a major employer and industry player in the province of British Columbia,” said Imperial Metals CEO Brian Kynoch.
Based on reserves of more than 300 million metric tons of ore grading 0.36 percent copper and 0.27 grams per metric ton gold, a mine at Red Chris is projected to produce 2.1 billion pounds of copper and 1.32 million ounces of gold over an initial 28-year mine-life.
The mine – located 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Dease Lake – will employ around 350 workers, including many First Nations people from this region of northwestern B.C.
“Expanding the mine to its intended capacity will make the jobs, training and other benefits that we are using to build our Nation possible,” said Tahltan Central Council President Chad Day.
Earlier this year, members of the Tahltan Central Council, the governing body of the Tahltan First Nation, voted to accept a co-management agreement with Imperial Metals and Red Chris Mine.
“From here on, our environmental oversight role – an important part of our agreement – will also start to expand,” explained Day.
Prior to reaching an agreement with Imperial, Tahltan Central Council hired Klohn Crippen Berger to review the tailings impoundment design.
During its site inspection, the engineering firm could only inspect the “North Starter Dam” as the more permanent North and South dams have yet to be constructed.
The engineers that visited Red Chris said the starter dam is appropriately designed and a visual inspection showed none of the telltale signs of instability.
“The dam appears to be well constructed,” the engineers concluded in a report for the Tahltan.
Above extra scrutiny of the dam design, B.C. Mines Minster Bennett expressed confidence that water quality at Red Chris will be closely monitored.
“I have no doubt … that (waste) water is going to be managed carefully, and in such a way that people downstream, including our neighbors in Alaska, can have confidence that we’re doing everything that any responsible jurisdiction should do,” he told the Vancouver Sun.
Next up: KSM
As Red Chris ramps up to commercial production, Earthworks has joined Southeast Alaska conservation groups in trying to halt any momentum at Seabridge’s KSM project.
To discourage investors and potential partners, Earthworks, United Tribal Transboundary Mining Working Group and Salmon Beyond Borders published a report focused on potential risks of developing the large copper-gold project located about 22 miles east of the Alaska-B.C. border.
Over the past decade, Seabridge has outlined 9.9 billion pounds of copper and 38.2 million ounces of gold in reserves at KSM.
“Based on the 2012 preliminary feasibility study, we project a 52- to 55-year mining operation at 130,000 (metric) tons per day,” according to Brent Murphy, vice president of environmental affairs, Seabridge Gold.
Churning out a projected 850,000 ounces of gold and 195 million pounds of copper annually during the first five years of operation, and 500,000 ounces of gold and 150 million pounds of copper per year for the next five decades, KSM has the potential to be a boon to the economy of northwestern B.C.
The conservation groups contend that long-term metals prices and environmental risks to streams flowing into Alaska weigh on the feasibility of developing a mine at KSM.
These groups rallied in protest of KSM at Seabridge’s June 24 annual shareholder meeting in Toronto.
The downstream concerns of Alaskans were addressed in a Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency report on KSM.
“The agency is satisfied that identified mitigation measures for the project would address potential impacts in Alaska on fish; recreational and commercial fisheries and human health from changes to water quality and quantity in the Unuk River,” CEAA wrote.
While the four deposits that are included in the current mine plan – Kerr, Sulphurets, Mitchell and Iron Cap – are located in an area drained by the Unuk River, the processing and tailings storage facilities are located in an area drained by the Nass River, which runs to the south and does not cross the Alaska border.
Seabridge’s Murphy pointed out that the Mitchell deposit is already flowing naturally occurring acid rock drainage into a tributary of the Unuk River. Removal of the sulfur and metal-bearing ore, along with the water management required by environmental law, is expected to stem the flow of acidic and metals-laden waters currently flowing into the river.
“Because of the fact that once we go into the Mitchell Valley, we have to contain and treat all contact water, we predict that water quality in the Unuk River will actually improve – it is currently very poor,” he noted.
On the economic side of the equation, Seabridge notes that the all-inclusive costs to mine KSM is estimated to be less than US$700 per ounce of gold produced and other mines with similar reserve grades are turning a profit at today’s metal prices. Additionally, the preliminary feasibility study does not account for the recently discovered higher grade core zones at KSM.
Seabridge plans to update the feasibility study with current metals prices, costs and other inputs later this year.
The company, meanwhile, is continuing partnership talks with a number of major miners who have signed confidentiality agreements for KSM – discussions that are bolstered by the fact that KSM has received final approval of its environmental assessment application by both the provincial and federal governments.