In Depth

Tofino activists decry 'high priority' open pit mine overlooking picturesque West Coast tourist town

Municipal leaders and environmental activists on Vancouver Island's west coast are calling on the B.C. government to update what they say are archaic mining laws that easily allow resource exploration without local consent.

Mine opponents say it's too easy for anyone to get mining and exploration claims in B.C.

Dan Lewis has lived in Tofino for 25 years. He is the executive director of Clayoquot Action. (Simon Charland/CBC)

Municipal leaders and environmental activists on Vancouver Island's west coast are calling on the B.C. government to update what they say are archaic mining laws that easily allow resource exploration without local consent.

Nestled among a lush rainforest, Clayoquot Sound is one of UNESCO's 18 biosphere reserve regions. Its main city, Tofino, is on Travel + Leisure's 2017 list of 50 best places to visit in the world

But laws in B.C. don't prevent companies or individuals from staking mining claims there and exploring for natural resources. 

The prospect of an open-pit copper mine on Catface Mountain, which overlooks Tofino, is what prompted local resident Dan Lewis and his wife to sell their business and start up conservation group Clayoquot Action in 2013.

At the time, the provincial government had granted a mineral exploration permit on the mountain, which the local Ahousat First Nation claims as part of its unceded traditional territory. 

Catface Mountain overlooks Tofino on B.C.'s West Coast. (Simon Charland/CBC)

"It would be a huge impact on the landscape. It would be a huge impact on the local economy and on the biology of the region," said Lewis, who has lived in the region for 25 years.

Local leaders like Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne agree the project could also have a catastrophic impact on local business.

Canadian mining company Imperial Metals, known for the spill at its Mount Polley mine, owns the rights to the copper deposits on Catface Mountain. 

"The thought that we could have a Mount Polley kind of disaster here in Clayoquot Sound for me is unthinkable and I will do everything I can to make sure that never happens," Lewis said.

However, the risks of a design flaw like that detected at Mount Polley would be minimized.

Steve Robertson, Imperial Metals' VP of corporate affairs said since Mount Polley, the company has established an independent expert panel to review its projects on a regular basis. 

Mining jobs in B.C.

The Catface Mountain and nearby Fandora mines "are very valuable to the company," according to Robertson.

"We feel that they're high priority projects for us," Robertson said, confirming the Catface Mountain project would likely be an open-face mine. 

The province, in a written statement, said mining in B.C. employs more than 30,000 people in mineral exploration and related sectors. 

Operations at Imperial Metals's Mount Polley mine near Likely, B.C., switched from mining to cleanup after the tailings pond failed and spilled its contents into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake on Aug. 4, 2014. (CBC)

It said seven new mines have been permitted in B.C. since 2011, creating more than 2,000 new jobs. 

But environmentalists say the current situation in Tofino is indicative of major problems with how mining operates in B.C.

According to Mining Watch Canada, B.C. is the only province with a significant mining industry that hasn't adapted its mining claims, first developed in 1874, to the realities of the 21st century. 

B.C. operates with the "free mining" concept, which allows permit holders to explore just about anywhere except for "all parks and ecological reserves, protected areas and Indian Reserves." 

'It's not normal'

Almost anyone can apply for a mining claim to explore beneath ground, even if it's on private land.

If the land hasn't been developed or farmed, the applicant doesn't even need to ask the land owner for surface rights — all the company needs to do is inform the land owner. 

To illustrate how easy it is to obtain a mining claim, last January, First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM) applied for and received one under the home of Mining Minister Bill Bennett

According to the group's president, Bev Sellars, it only cost $104.89 to do it online.

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne says that affordable housing has become a more crucial issue in recent years as the city enjoys an increasingly successful tourism economy. (Simon Charland/CBC)

"We need a process whereby First Nations and local governments are acknowledged much earlier," Osborne said.  

"You can't just go online and stake a claim and then receive some rights or some entitlement ... we don't do that in any other industry."

In 2013, Quebec changed its laws to allow land owners to say no to mining exploration on their property. The change also gave more power to municipalities to accept or refuse a project. 

Ontario also updated its mining laws in the last few years to better protect residents and landowners. 

First Nations opposition

In Tofino, as elsewhere in B.C., exploration permits are only a preliminary step. If deposits are discovered, the company must then go through the environmental assessment process. 

It's a long and difficult process and in the past few years the law has leaned increasingly towards First Nations in cases involving natural resources. 

​Robertson said Imperial Metals has had "good support" for the project from First Nations in the area. 

Tofino is a popular tourist town in Clayoquot Sound. (Simon Charland/CBC)

"There's a wide variety of opinion in the community, and we enjoy the support of certain key members of the community," he said. 

The Ahousaht Nation, whose traditional territories include the Catface Mountain area, did originally give exploration on the mountain a green light, but it later chose to prioritize tourism over mining. 

The Tla-o-qui-aht Nation, on the other hand, has always maintained that it opposes the Fandora mine on its traditional territory near Tofino. 

Call to ban mining in the region

Potential mining projects in the region go beyond Catface Mountain and Fandora. 

In 2015, a Clayoquot Action study found 257 mining claims in the region from 23 businesses or individuals.

Lewis wants the province to ban mining exploration and extraction in the region. 

"It's the provincial government who is giving the permits to mining companies and it's the provincial government that has the power to ban mining in Clayoquot Sound," he said.

The province did announce the protection of the Flathead Valley from all natural resource mining extraction in 2010. The companies that held mining claims were compensated. 

The last to settle with the province, Cline Mining Corporation, was paid $9.4 million in 2014 after it took the province to court.