Transitioning to a post-carbon economy requires massive investments in new energy infrastructure, which will mean an increased demand for base metals. Mining will therefore continue to be needed. In the long term, we must reduce our reliance on primary mineral extraction, which is projected to grow globally 2- to 10-fold by 2060. In the short term, the obligation is to manage this extractive industry in a way that limits its environmental footprint through more stringent regulations, reporting, and enforcement throughout the mining industry.
Overview of Mining in Canada
Mining is one of Canada’s largest extractive industries. It contributes heavily to Canada’s GDP, employment, and facilitates a number of secondary and tertiary industries. In Canada, provincial governments have primary jurisdiction over the mining industry and many of the standards mines must adhere to. The federal government has residual powers over mining where its effects have an impact on areas of federal jurisdiction, or the effects of mining are extra-provincial in nature. As such the Government of Canada has the power to create regulatory frameworks that protect the environment from the impacts of mining, and mining waste, when such impacts are not of a purely provincial nature, i.e the protection of waterways and aquatic habitats.
The mining industry in Canada, especially the waste products it produces, are laxly overseen and underreported. Leading bodies, such as MineWatch Canada, have made it clear that we must do much more to control the impact of tailings - materials left over after the process of separating the valuable fraction from the uneconomic fraction (gangue) of an ore - on the environment; prevent mine effluent from polluting waterways; and reduce our reliance on primary sourced minerals.
Environmental Impacts of Mining
Major Contributor of Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs)
In 2018 “Heavy Industries” which includes mining, smelting and refining, pulp and paper, iron and steel, cement, lime and gypsum, and chemicals and fertilizers accounted for 78.3 megatons of GHG emissions making it the fourth heaviest emitting economic sector in Canada.
Damaging Impact on Waterways
Regulation of mining in this area is very lax. Under the Act, only certain waterways are scheduled to require reporting on effluent from mining and provincial regulatory frameworks vary across the country. The Fisheries Act has also reclassified certain lakes, making them exempt from protections. For example, Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine located northeast of Williams Lake spilled a million cubic meters of tailings into Quesnel Lake in 2014 and no charges have been laid by the B.C government. The same mine is allowed to dump 52 million litres of wastewater a day into Quesnel Lake to this day.
Polluting Groundwater and Ecosystems
There is currently no monitoring of the impacts of uranium mining on groundwater, agricultural lands, or air quality as wind carries pollutant loads to other provinces. Current regulations also do not adequately protect communities and ecosystems from failures, tailings facilities require significant changes to protect people and the environment.
The Government of Canada has recognised the deficiencies in our systems of oversight of the mining industry. In 2019, Canada’s Commissioner on Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) published a report outlining the following failures in mining regulation:
- Infrequent inspections are done at mine sites (once every 1.5 years on average)
- 35% of 138 metal mines were out of compliance: not reporting pollutant release data
- 117 non-metal mine sites were not subject to mandatory monitoring of effects on fish
- Lack of enforcement measures when mine sites show effects on fish and fish habitat
- Lack of transparency on pollution, spills, and effects to fish populations on a mine-by-mine basis, to inform the public and affected communities”
Recommendations to Mitigate Environmental Impacts of Mining
The following policy steps should be adopted to meet Canada’s mineral requirements while mitigating negative environmental impacts, and reflect Green Party of Canada policy and also recommendations for best practices suggested by civil society groups that monitor the mining industry in Canada:
- Require life-cycle product stewardship of metals to ensure that once mined, those metals remain in economic service for generations;
- Work with provinces, territories, and industry to ensure that all mining operations are insured for environmental liabilities and have an adequate pre-funded plan for remediation. This would reflect lessons learned from the inadequacies of orphan-well remediation plans in the oil and gas sector;
- Introduce a Corporate Social Responsibility Act to regulate the mining industry, requiring the highest environmental practices, and ensure that waters are not contaminated during mining operations and after a mine closes. Have corporate boards to assume full responsibility for risk (including financial risk);
- Ban new tailings facilities directly upstream of inhabited areas and vital waterways;
- Ban the use of upstream dams and close existing ones;
- Establish safety oversights which are independent, and include the establishment of grievance procedures and whistleblower protections;
- Make all information about a mine’s operations, environmental impacts, and closures available to the public; and
- Enforce compliance with robust monitoring systems and develop emergency preparedness/response plans before the exploration phase.