Some environmental safeguards built into British Columbia mine approvals are being gradually whittled away without enough public or scientific oversight, says new university research.
A recently published paper from researchers at Dalhousie University's School for Resource and Environmental Studies concludes that mining companies have been able to amend their original operating conditions in ways that can have serious effects on water resources. Those amendments, it says, are often granted with little apparent scientific justification or followup.
"We express concern that the amendment process is being used as a loophole, intentionally or unintentionally, to evade the rigour and scrutiny of the full environmental assessment process," said Ben Collison, lead author of the paper published in the journal Facets.
Collison said that, while his research was restricted to B.C., the same thing may be happening across the country.
"This could be part of a bigger picture," he said.
David Karn, spokesman for B.C.'s department of Environment and Climate Change, disputed the paper's conclusions.
"The Environmental Assessment Office has a robust process to review any application to amend an environmental assessment certificate," he said in an email.
Collison and his colleagues looked at 23 mines in British Columbia that were approved between 2002 and 2020 after going through an environmental assessment. Of those mines, 15 requested a total of 49 amendments to the original conditions of their operating licence, most within three years of opening.
Almost all — 98 per cent — were granted.
The researchers concluded 20 of those approved amendments were likely to damage water resources. The amendments permitted changes to effluent discharge, increased water withdrawals and damage to fish habitat. One allowed a mine to increase its production 50 per cent.
Collison said those amendments were accompanied by little scientific justification, oversight or monitoring.
"It was very, very difficult to find information in those amendment documents that gave us numerical, quantitative descriptions of the proposed changes," he said. "Oftentimes, these were being approved without any followup monitoring studies or enforcement actions or compliance checkups after the fact."
The report includes examples of amendments being granted despite the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office acknowledging information on their effects was lacking. In 2017, one mine was allowed to change its tailings storage on the understanding that a water treatment plant would be up and running — a plant that, said Collison, still wasn't operating as of earlier this year.
"There were changes that could have potentially serious impacts," he said.
But Karn said that the paper didn't look at the whole story.
"This research project was conducted using only documents posted on the (assessment office's) project information website, which does not provide a complete account of (its) rigorous assessment process and project information," he said.
Karn said all amendments are carefully assessed. First Nations are consulted and public engagement may be sought.
"Amendments do not weaken the requirements for proponents to protect environmental values, conditions and actions, which are part of their environmental assessment certificates, and in many cases will result in strengthened requirements," Karn said.
Collison said the situation has improved in the province since its new environmental assessment legislation became law in 2019, as it has made information more publicly available.
But he warned that his study was narrowly focused. It only dealt with mines, water impacts and one province. And the amendments it examined remain in force.
"This is only a small piece of the puzzle," Collison said.
"The findings call into question the credibility of the entire environmental assessment process. I think there are other impacts that other researchers should look at."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2022.
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Bob Weber, The Canadian Press