Green Mining: There is a better way
Green Mining sounds like a contradiction in terms—an oxymoron, like “government intelligence.” But if one is to believe the “Green” stock brokerages, it is the way of investment future. “Greener” is more accurate—mining with the smallest footprint on the future.
Unfortunately, with the streamlining of the federal environmental review process, this is more of a dream than a reality. Still, the proposed Red Chris mine on Mount Todagin in northwestern BC is an example of a situation where green mining could be done. But will it?
The proposed open-pit copper mine has been the centre of a heated confrontation which, over the last decade, has resulted in Tahltan Elders, mainly grandmothers, arrested for blockading the company’s access; felony charges laid (and then dropped) against renowned Tahltan activist Lillian (Tiger Lil) Campbell; and a court case, initiated on behalf of the Tahltan Elders by Mining Watch, that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The top of Mount Todagin, like most of the surrounding mountains, was once the bottom of the ocean. Vaulted skyward on the shoulders of warring mountain ranges, the stratum near the surface abounds with fossil ammonites sometimes reaching the size of bicycle rims.
Because of the mountain’s close proximity to the volcanic Mount Edziza and its obsidian extrusions, it is not uncommon to find obsidian shards where Taltan and pre-Tahltan hunters worked the glassy rock, known as “black blood” to the indigenous natives, into tools, arrow points and spearheads.
Mass displacement There are two reasons for the controversy over Todagin. The first is that the major ore body is low-grade, high-volume copper that would result in a massive open-pit mine. Since the main body of ore is 1,600 metres down, an open-pit mine would generate a huge amount of overburden and tailings, all to be held in a giant pond upstream from a chain of six living lakes.
The second reason for the Tahltans’ concern is that Todagin Mountain supports the world’s greatest concentration of Stone sheep, a unique species of mountain sheep. Distinct in both structure and genetics from their nearest neighbors—the all-white Dall sheep in the Yukon and the larger Rocky Mountain Bighorn to the east—the nearest genetic cousins of the Stone sheep (the Siberian Snow sheep) live in Russia.
Many believe that a giant open-pit mine would result in the mass displacement of the Todagin Stone sheep. Since open-pit mining requires a continuous schedule of shelf mining (rows of explosives laid into the side shelves of the ever-expanding pit), plus the activity of giant haul trucks running from the pit to the on-site concentrator, it is believed that the sheep would be displaced at least for the life of the mine, a minimum of 20 years. (As one elder observed, a farmer couldn’t contain a herd of domestic cows under these conditions, let alone wild mountain sheep.)
Adding to the debate, the Red Chris proposal has spawned a rush of exploration and claim-staking across the Todagin Plateau, triggering a number of conflicts between the mining interests and other legitimate users of the mountain. In 2010, a bow hunter holding a limited-draw permit to hunt Stone sheep rams filed a complaint with the provincial government about mining helicopter activity. A similar problem arose the following year for the Tahltan guide-outfitter for the mountain.
Then, in mid-July, while filming Stone sheep lambing along the western rim of the mountain, the film crew for Out Yonder Productions was buzzed by an Interior Helicopters helicopter, flying for Bolero Exploration. The chopper came in so low that that it blew the tarp off the cook tent. More importantly, though, it drove the Stone sheep out of the lambing area.
A needless struggle The scenario sounds like a classic struggle between interests, but it is a needless one for there is a “green” alternative for Red Chris. That is, while mountain-topping has been standard operating procedure since industrial mining first hit the coal-rich mountains of West Virginia and the Appalachians, it is not the only technique available to mining engineers. And it is at this juncture that “green mining” comes into consideration.
In light of the importance of the surface of the highland plateau territory for Stone sheep (not to mention other wildlife) and the downstream problems with the tailings pond, the question arises: is there any way to mine the mountain without the problem of degradation of surface habitat and fisheries? And the answer is “yes.” Todagin is a classic opportunity for employing low-impact mining.
The results from deep test-hole drilling conducted by Imperial Minerals reveal that far below the surface there appears to be an extremely rich seam of not just copper but gold and silver. Independent mining engineers point out that this ore body could be reached directly through either horizontal tunneling or vertical-shaft mining. Hence a green alternative, since this approach would leave the surface undisturbed and eliminate the need to impound vast quantities of acid-generating rock.
So why pursue the open-pit mine option? The answer is, “Tradition!” Imperial Metals is the same company that operates the open-pit Huckleberry mine south of Houston, BC, and as a consequence, owns the requisite heavy equipment for excavating the huge amounts of materials, which they can drive up the road to Iskut and start again.
Second is bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are paid to move the paper in front of them and not to ask the question: “Is this the best possible alternative for the environment?” And, since the federal environmental review process is being off-loaded to the provinces, who are not equipped to perform the analysis of federal issues (like fisheries), there is no government support for environmental alternatives.
Green mining sounds great, but—like developing alternative energy rather than expanding the tar sands—it is not on the agenda of governments. And in the end, the traditional motivation for mining is capital return. Since mining is notoriously a volatile game where profits can be huge, green alternatives seem ludicrous to the major players.
Ultimately, it comes down to the will of the people. If green mining alternatives are to become a reality, we have to abandon the traditional get-rich-quick Klondike metaphor and include social license in the equation. For every mine proposal there are ways to diminish the impact. Green mining is an oxymoron only if we allow tradition to drive the process.