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Endako mine effluent affecting aquatic environment in north-central B.C.

Environment ministry wants ‘improved’ waste management

By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun

The Ministry of Environment is re-evaluating the amount of waste water the Endako mine in north-central B.C. is allowed to discharge because a review has found effluent is affecting the aquatic environment.

Although the waste water discharged from Thompson Creek Metals’ molybdenum mine does not exceed its permit limits, monitoring indicates that effluent is affecting the aquatic environment in Francois Lake, the Endako River, and streams originating from the mine site, according to documents obtained by The Vancouver Sun.

The permit allows the mine to discharge up to 5.6 million cubic metres a year of seepage and run-off from tailings dams and the mine site — enough discharge to fill more than 2,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools a year. The effluent must meet permit limits for concentrations of metals such as copper, molybdenum and iron.

The large molybdenum mine, which started operating in 1965, is near the town of Fraser Lake and the traditional territories of the Nadleh Whut’en and Stellat’en First Nations.

In particular, monitoring indicates that “elevated levels of contaminants of concern” are reaching Francois Lake and influencing the physiology of the prickly sculpin, normally a bottom-feeding fish.

The sculpin is considered a sentinel species, which can provide advance warning of dangers to the environment.

“Significantly reduced gonad (reproductive organs) and liver size among fish provide scientific evidence of physiological changes in fish from exposure to mine effluent,” says an Oct. 22, 2013 memo.

The memo from a consulting biologist is addressed to Greg Tamblyn, an environmental quality section head in northern B.C. of the environment ministry.

In a Jan. 6, 2014 letter, environment ministry official Lisa Torunski told Thompson Creek Metals officials the ministry will be taking steps to re-evaluate the authorized discharge limits in Endako’s Environmental Management Act permit.

“The intention is to determine ways to reduce contaminant loading from the mine site to the receiving environment,” said the letter.

The ministry said enhanced monitoring and improved waste management will be necessary to mitigate the aquatic environmental effects.

The mine’s latest comprehensive monitoring report showed several B.C. water quality guidelines were exceeded at the Sweetnam Creek outlet in Francois Lake, just south of the mine operation. The exceedances were for sulphate, total phosphorus, total aluminum, total molybdenum and dissolved aluminum, according to the memo.

Federal guidelines were also exceeded for molybdenum, fluoride, aluminum and iron.

Water chemistry analysis also provided evidence of elevated contaminant levels from mine effluent in a pair of creeks and the Endako River, show the documents.

The ministry of environment declined to provide further details of its evaluation, including whether a farther-reaching examination of provincial effluent standards is needed.

Instead, in a brief email, environment ministry spokesman Dave Crebo said it is “actively involved in addressing water quality concerns” at the Endako site and has met with concerned First Nations.

Crebo noted the Endako Mine Review Committee — which includes representatives from the ministry, Thompson Creek Metals and First Nations — will be meeting in the fall to review the monitoring results and the company’s plans.

The Nadleh Whut’en First Nation — which leaked the ministry documents — says it is growing increasingly concerned and frustrated with the ongoing environmental effects from the Endako mine.

After a recent $500-million modernization and expansion, the mine has an expected life of about 17 years. It employs about 300 people, some from First Nations communities.

Nadleh Whut’en chief Martin Louie is particularly concerned the effluent could affect other fish species such as salmon and the endangered Nechako white sturgeon, and is calling for broader study.

“It seems like the government is allowing industry to pollute,” said Louie.

Thompson Creek Metals called the evaluation of the latest monitoring results preliminary.

A re-evaluation of its permit limits would be up for discussion as part of an ongoing analysis, including with Environment Canada, agreed David Bailey, director of environment for Thompson Creek Metals.

But Bailey said the company believes the current effluent limit in its permit is supported by good science. “We don’t necessarily want to see it just kind of (changed) without some additional study or analysis that says that is the appropriate regulatory path,” he said.

Bailey added he didn’t believe the effluent effects were adverse.

He noted the benthic invertebrate community is doing well in Sweetnam Creek. Benthic invertebrates are creatures with no backbones or internal skeletons such as mites, larvae of insects and crayfish that live at the bottom of lakes and rivers. They are important food for fish.

And while there was a finding of decreased gonad size, for example, monitoring didn’t show negative effects in population size or reproductive capacity, said Bailey.

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