Mining company facing charges for alleged damage to Hecate Strait island

The Gitxaala First Nation says the B.C. government failed to adequately monitor the mine as pollutants leaked into the wetland and waterways as Banks Island Gold Ltd., its CEO and its chief geologist are charged with a series of environmental offences.

First Nation says B.C. government failed to monitor mine as pollutants leaked into the wetland and waterways

The Banks Island Gold mine began commercial production in January 2015, and was ordered to cease operations in July 2015. In January 2016, the company filed for bankruptcy. (courtesy Ian McAllister)

A B.C. mining company, along with its CEO and chief geologist, are facing charges for allegedly releasing waste material into woods, wetland, and water on a Hecate Strait island.

Banks Island is in the Hecate Strait, approximately 110 kilometers south of Prince Rupert. (Google Maps)

They have been charged with 18 offences for allegedly violating the province's Environmental Management Act, including failure to report a spill of a polluting substance and repeatedly failing to comply with environmental permits.

Banks Island Gold Ltd., president and CEO Benjamin Mossman and chief geologist Dirk Meckert have not yet appeared in court. They will make their first appearance in Prince Rupert on Sept. 7.

According to the Gitxaala First Nation, the company has left behind environmental damage that has people worried about the safety of their food and fish. 

'Wild west mentality'

Banks Island Gold began operating the Yellow Giant gold mine, approximately 110 kilometers south of Prince Rupert, in January 2015.

When the company was given permission to operate, Mines Minister Bill Bennett touted the company as a key contributor to the province's resource economy. Behind the scenes, however, concerns were already being raised.

A report from the Ministry of Environment indicates areas mining waste was detected on Banks Island during a July 2015 inspection. (B.C. Ministry of Environment)

"They kind of operated under this wild west mentality, where they were out on an island, and they were isolated, and they kind of did things accordingly," said James Witzke, assessment manager of the Gitxaala Environmental Monitoring Office. 

James Witzke, Envrironmental Assessment Manager at Gitxaala Environmental Monitoring Office. (LinkedIn)

He said the Gitxaala voiced their worry about the mine and its impact on the environment during the province's review of the project, and continued to do so after the mine began operations.

He also said the government didn't inspect the mine site in the 15 months after Banks Island Gold received its permits.

"To be honest what's just as frustrating to me is the Ministry of Energy and Mines handling of the whole situation, and Ministry of Environment," Witzke said. "If there were any compliance visits out there, they would have noticed these things long before." 

If there were any compliance visits out there, they would have noticed these things long before.- James  Witzke, Gitxaala Environmental Monitoring Office

North Coast NDP MLA Jennifer Rice echoes that frustration.

"It's too little too late," she said in reacting to news of the charges. "Gitxaala raised alarm bells throughout the process, from the get-go, and called the ministry, called up the provincial government and said 'have you checked this site out?' And they never did."

Mining waste into creek and wetland, report

Rice says an inspection only happened after a frustrated employee of Banks Island alerted the NDP and the Ministry of Energy and Mines to problems at the site.

North Coast NDP MLA Jennifer Rice. (B.C. NDP)

On July 9, 2015, the ministries of environment and mines, along with Environment Canada and the Conservation Officer Service, inspected the Banks Island Gold site.

The next day, Cassandra Caunce of the Environment Ministry issued a pollution abatement order, saying the mining company had released tailings and effluent into a creek, a lake, a pond, as well as forest and wetland on Banks Island.

"Based on the review of available information, I am satisfied on reasonable grounds that the tailings will be further released into the unnamed creek and will cause pollution by the continued seepings of tailings," she wrote. "Further, that effluent from the Discovery zone site will be further released into the unnamed lake."

On July 15, 2015, the Ministry of Energy and Mines ordered operations of the Yellow Giant Mine to cease and desist until they were in compliance, and in January 2016, Banks Island Gold filed for bankruptcy

When Rice brought up the delay in inspections in the B.C. Legislature, Mines Minister Bill Bennett argued the government had taken appropriate action. 

"That mine was closed," he told the Legislature.  "And it's still closed, and it will never re-open, honourable speaker, unless they can show that they will operate in a way that protects the natural envirionment."

Gitxaala waiting and worrying

Witzke said the government is still failing to take action. 

"We've gone to the Ministry of Energy and Mines and said, 'Listen, you guys. There were discharges into salmon-bearing streams, and not just salmon-bearing stream but these streams flow indirectly into the ocean, into bays where people from Gitxaala harvest seaweed, and they harvest other things, they harvest shellfish, they harvest ground fish that kind of mill about in that bay there.'"

"We have a contaminated site that has ... been sitting there for over a year.- James Witzke

Witzke said people have questions about whether the seaweed is safe, as well as concerns about the effects on the salmon spawning in the waters around the mine site, which he and Rice said have yet to be cleaned up.

"We have a contaminated site that has ... been sitting there for over a year now, essentially, and nothing has been done about it, and we're kind of getting tired of the B.S. that the Ministry of Energy and Mines has been feeding to us."

With files from George Baker.

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.