Although Gov. Jay Inslee did not reach the White House, his visionary climate platform took on a life of its own. It was quickly adopted by other candidates, and it now undergirds much of the Biden administration’s climate policy. Indeed, Inslee’s proposals form much of the core of the trillion-dollar infrastructure legislation currently before Congress.
When proponents wax lyrical about the new energy economy, we tend to focus on sunshine and sea breezes. But a new energy economy will also require mountains of minerals. One of the most essential is copper.
A day will come — must come — when the vast majority of these materials will be recycled from existing products. But until a more circular economy arrives, we have to use virgin ores, often mined in foreign nations.
As recently demonstrated by computer chips, pharmaceuticals, lumber and rare earths, such dependencies can cause havoc. Supply chains can be disrupted by war, weather, strikes, digital hacking and environmental calamities.
Tragically, British Columbia appears to be flirting with a monumental environmental disaster. This time bomb can be found in the unbaked plans to dramatically expand the tailings pond at the evocatively-named Copper Mountain Mine, about a 90-minute drive north from the U.S.-Canada border crossing near Oroville.
“Tailings pond” is one of those well-massaged names, like “agricultural lagoon,” that make ugly messes sound innocuous, or even appealing. Don’t be misled. This will not be anything resembling Walden Pond.
The infamous Buffalo Creek disaster, covered in every U.S. environmental-law text, was a classic tailings pond rupture. The resulting flood killed 125 people, injured 1,100, and left more than 4,000 homeless. The Pittston Coal company termed it an “act of God,” but the courts disagreed. It was the result of sloppy regulation and money-saving corner-cutting.
In 2014, a 120-foot-high earthen dam on a tailings pond burst in British Columbia. The breach released 6.6 billion gallons of contaminated waste from the Mount Polley copper mine into the nearby drinking water supply and sockeye salmon spawning area. According to the mine’s owner, the pond contained 400 tons of arsenic, 177 tons of lead, 326 tons of nickel and 18,400 tons of copper.
Globally, there have been 71 known tailings dam failings since 2010 that led to 482 deaths and 2,100 kilometers of damaged waterways.
The Copper Mountain Mine tailings pond sits at the headwaters of the Similkameen River. The Similkameen flows into the beloved Okanogan River, which in turn flows into the Columbia. The Copper Mountain tailings dam already is three times as tall as the one that failed at Mount Polley. The mine owners are pushing for an expansion that would increase the dam’s height of 525 feet to 853 feet, as high as Rainier Square Tower, Seattle’s second tallest building. This is an earthen dam, holding back a “pond” of toxic substances.
To the surprise, and then the anger, of First Nations and environmental groups, this expansion is moving forward without an environmental assessment. Technically, under B.C.’s ultra-pro-mining laws, an environmental assessment is not needed. However, Environment Minister George Heyman can require such an assessment if he believes it would serve the public interest. So can B.C. Premier John Horgan.
Is it needed?
In a blistering 2016 report of the B.C. mining industry, then-Auditor General Carol Bellringer found that “almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Environment were not met.” She called for transferring the enforcement of mining laws away from the Ministry of Energy and Mines, whose principal mission is promotion. That has not happened.
Earlier in his career, Horgan, Premier of British Columbia, was the opposition critic of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, and he served as lead negotiator on the Columbia River Trust. As a result, Horgan understands these issues well, and his values align with those who want healthy people, robust fisheries and a Green New Deal.
But Horgan has a huge array of responsibilities as premier. Tailings-pond dams generally can be ignored until they rupture. That must not happen at Copper Mountain.
To be clear, I am not opposed to mining, and I am not opposed to the Copper Mountain Mine. Humankind desperately needs a green-energy revolution, and copper will be indispensable. Leading brands that purchase mined materials, including Microsoft, BMW and Ford Motor Company, know this and are committing to using the rigorous environmental standard hosted by the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance. B.C. needs to catch up to such voluntary measures by adopting and enforcing protective regulations for Washington watersheds and communities downstream.
Is B.C. likely to adopt such regulations given that it entrusts mining oversight to a ministry that views its mission as making life profitable for the mining industry? Only if Premier Horgan feels both sustained pressure from Olympia and a path forward to new trade partners among U.S. companies that will only buy if the province meets high standards for environmental and cultural sustainability. Who better to convey these messages than Gov. Inslee?