An Indigenous community in northwestern B.C. is caught in the aftermath of a spill at a remote mining operation, after the company failed to shut down operations even after two stop-work orders from the province. The Gitxaala First Nation says they did not consent to the mine, which operates near their food harvesting areas, and want the company out of their territory.
Banks Island Gold received a pollution abatement order on July 10. After an inspection on July 15 turned up issues with safety and compliance, the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines “immediately ordered a full shut-down of the mine,” said Sandra Steilo, a spokesperson for the ministry, in an email.
Benjamin Mossman, the president and CEO of Banks Island Gold, had claimed earlier this week in a press release that the company had not been ordered to shut down.
The company has been operating the mine on Banks Island, located midway along the B.C. coast between the mainland and Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), for over two years. (Disclosure: I am part of a hereditary house of the Gitxaala First Nation whose traditional land is located on Banks Island.)
The pollution abatement order, a copy of which was obtained by Ricochet, calls on the company to put a stop to the spill, clean it up, and restore the site. Further, the company must come up with a spill prevention plan and report on its implementation by August 31. A full report is due January 15, 2016.
Mining without Indigenous consent
The mine is located in the traditional and unceded territory of the Gitxaala Nation. Neither the Gitxaala nor the public of northern B.C. approved it.
According to Mining Technology, an informational resource for the mining industry, Banks Island Gold received a permit for the gold mine from the B.C. government in March 2014, but began mining in February 2013.
The company did not undertake an environmental review process, and according to the Gitxaala’s band chief, weakened regulations are to blame.
Band Chief Clarence Innis told Ricochet that the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines “moved the goal posts” so that smaller mines are not required to carry out full environmental assessments. “The changing of the rules is all part of the problem.”
Changes to provincial and federal environmental legislation have eliminated several steps of the mining review process related to protection of waterways and animals.
The Gitxaala Band Council was initially approached by the B.C. government for information on Banks Island. From July 2013 to February 2014, Gitxaala Environmental Monitoring, the council’s scientific arm, outlined the risks associated with any kind of mining spill, including ecological damage and disruption of local food supplies. They then handed over their environmental reports, making clear their opposition to the project.
The hereditary chiefs and house leaders on whose land the mine is located also voiced concerns about the project. The Gitxaala follow a traditional system of governance, where people are organized into clans and houses, and hereditary chiefs and house leaders are recognized as owners of particular areas of land. Their collective property makes up the traditional territory of the nation.
Despite the Gitxaala’s opposition to having the mine on their land, Banks Island Gold went ahead with operations.
Small mines fly under radar of regulations
Smaller companies such as Banks Island Gold often find ways to skirt important oversight, says Ugo Lapointe, the Canadian program coordinator at MiningWatch Canada. “The company is not doing well at all,” he said. “When your company’s struggling for money, where do you cut first? Environment, social measures, all the externalities. The company went ahead with this mine without a bankable feasibility study and without environment assessments.”
Lapointe told Ricochet that he’s been working to gather the facts on the Banks Island Gold mining spill as they arise. In particular, he’s tracking a water-quality measure called total suspended solids. The higher the level, the more strain a water system endures, with implications for all plants and animals dependent on it.
According to Lapointe, the Banks Island Gold spill could dramatically exceed the legal limit on total suspended solids. The company estimates that 240,000 litres of water containing one tonne of solids were spilled.
“The total suspended solids could be 150 times higher than the maximum allowed in a sample, or up to 280 times higher than the monthly average limit” on what is allowed to be released into the environment, said Lapointe.
“We would like to have clear data. To our knowledge to date, it is not available to the government.”
Innis wants that information too. “I know our people are upset with what is going on. It is a very important area for us with salmon-bearing streams,” the band chief told Ricochet, noting the direct impact on the hereditary houses of the island. “The Gitxaala have been opposed to this development since day one.”
Soon after the interview, the Gitxaala Nation issued a press release in which the band chief was quoted as saying, “The Gitxaala people have no confidence in this company. They have contaminated one of the most important food gathering areas within Gitxaala’s traditional territory.”
“They need to clean up and get out.”
Spill threatens local food supply
The territory is known for being one of the most pristine and untouched in northern B.C. The Gitxaala village Lach Klan, located on Dolphin Island, has existed for 10,000 years and is considered the longest occupied village in all of North America.
Banks Island is part of the remote archipelago of islands that comprise Gitxaala territory. It is a central site for food gathering for the Gitxaala people, who live off the salmon, as well as halibut cod, mussels, cockle, seaweed and sea asparagus found in the area. Seaweed collection and drying camps are established there during the summer in order to build food stocks for the winter.
Now that effluent is leaking into the streams and surrounding area, many people are afraid to harvest.
Some have asked in a closed Facebook group used by residents whether fish and sea plants should be tested before collection. Innis, Lapointe and members of the Gitxaala have questions, but no one seems to have the answers, and the company is not forthcoming with details regarding the spill.
The pollution abatement order says that Banks Island Gold doesn’t have to reveal what exactly it spilled until the end of July, and a full report isn’t due until January. “This has raised questions in regards to the lack of transparency of data on the spill,” said Lapointe. “In what waterways? What contaminants are in the solids released?”
According to MiningWatch Canada, Banks Island Gold has ties to another company with a poor environmental record. Imperial Metals made big news last summer when its Mount Polley tailings pond breached, leading to one of the biggest environmental disasters in modern Canadian history. A subsidiary of the company, Selkirk, is a main shareholder of Banks Island Gold.
While the Gitxaala contend with the mining spill’s threat to vital food supplies, the band chief makes clear that his people are not backing down.
“We have been there for thousands of years. We have authority. Our hereditary system holds jurisdiction over the territory,” said Innis. “We still follow our adawx [history and stories] and ayaawx [law] over the territories, and they are aware of it. We are getting the message out we are not happy with it and we are trying to put a stop to it.”