Who cleans up? No requirements to fix environmental impacts from mining, auditor says
'Nobody actually seems to have to deal with the issue'
Ottawa is keeping appropriate track of how Canada's mining industry releases effluent into the country's waterways, but nobody's responsible for fixing problems when they are discovered, says the federal environment commissioner.
"When environmental effects were found, there was no requirement on anybody's part to actually have to do anything," Julie Gelfand said in an audit released Tuesday. "Nobody actually seems to have to deal with the issue."
The audit found other gaps.
Environment Canada didn't have adequate information for about one-third of Canada's metal mines. The department completed only two-thirds of its planned inspections for non-metals operations, such as coal or oilsands mines.
As well, it only monitored about 60 per cent of company-filed plans to compensate for fish habitat lost to tailings ponds.
"As a result, the department did not always know whether the mining companies performed their planned actions to offset the loss of fish and their habitat," the audit said.
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Gelfand's report said potash, coal and oilsands mines should be inspected more often. She also raised concerns about lower overall mine inspections in Ontario.
Charles Dumaresq of the Mining Association of Canada said the industry supports greater transparency.
"From a public credibility perspective, there's seen to be value in doing inspections," he said.
I don't know why this is so difficult.- Ugo Lapointe
Industry has pushed Environment Canada to release more inspection data, including the names of individual mines, Dumaresq added.
But he was cautious about cleanup laws.
"If you're going to have a requirement, you're going to have to have some enforcement mechanism to go with it," he said.
"Every solution is going to be different. How do you enforce a law like that, when the solutions are unique to each site and the times it takes to implement the solutions are unique to each site?"
No problem, said Ugo Lapointe of MiningWatch Canada.
"At the very least, there should be a mandatory investigation of cause and a mandatory investigation of solution. I don't know why this is so difficult."
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When fines are handed out, said Lapointe, they're too small to be a deterrent.
"We're urging the minister to put immediate resources into the hands of Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans to increase the inspection rates and ... to be able to enforce the law. Corporate directors are not afraid of Canadian law."
Effects of the audit's recommendations could be far-reaching.
A 2017 report from Environment Canada found three-quarters of mines that studied the environmental consequences of their operations found at least one impact. Half those mines found effects on both fish and their habitat.
All the effects were considered strong enough to be environmentally risky.
The same report stated about 75 per cent of mines that checked found reduced biodiversity among bugs that fish eat. About half the mines in the report found impacts near the site and far afield.
Tailings ponds are also a growing concern.
In addition to the vast ponds at Alberta's oilsands, the number of water bodies where effluent may be stored has grown almost tenfold since 2006 — to 46 from five.
Environment Canada has promised to develop options by next spring for how to clean up problems, including updating discharge limits.
A spokeswoman said in an email that the government is also looking at investigation and implementation requirements when impacts are found, as well as further enforcement measures. Caroline Theriault added that further enforcement measures are being considered.
Fisheries and Oceans acknowledged its efforts to keep track of tailings ponds have fallen short and said it would beef up monitoring by next April.