Fish-bearing lakes to be destroyed to become tailings ponds: CoC to sue feds – Vancouver Sun

Council of Canadians to sue federal government over Fisheries Act amendment

By Tiffany Crawford, Vancouver Sun

More than a dozen fish-bearing lakes across Canada, including one near Williams Lake, could be destroyed because of a legal loophole intended to allow mining companies to use dead lakes for dumping waste, says the Council of Canadians.

The organization will launch a legal challenge today seeking to overturn Schedule 2, an amendment to the Fisheries Act that allows mining companies to dump toxic waste in lakes and rivers by reclassifying them as “tailings impoundment areas.”

That means companies can strip lakes of their normal habitat and use them to stockpile mine tailings, large piles of crushed rock and chemicals left over after metals have been extracted.

Council chair Maude Barlow said details of the lawsuit against the federal government, which will be filed in an Ottawa court, will be released today at a news conference in Ottawa.

“I can say that we believe the amendment to the Fisheries Act violates the original intent of the act itself and although the challenge is coming from a Newfoundland legal team, it is Schedule 2 itself that we are challenging,” said Barlow, a former United Nations senior adviser on water.

The amendment to the act was introduced by the Liberals in 2002 and was originally intended for companies to use already dead lakes that had been historically used for mining waste.

Then in 2006, the Conservatives used the loophole to approve the destruction of two healthy lakes in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Under the Fisheries Act, it is against the law to harm fish-bearing waters.

The council argues the Fisheries Act is mandated to protect Canada’s water bodies and an amendment should not be allowed to violate the act as a whole.

As is its custom, Environment Canada won’t comment on a legal challenge, but said Thursday that storing tailings in lakes is not permitted unless there has been an environmental assessment.

The federal agency addressed the legal disparity — between the law prohibiting harm to fish-bearing lakes and the amendment allowing their destruction — by saying that before a lake is destroyed, companies must prove that dumping waste in a fresh water body “makes the most environmental, technical and socio-economic sense.”

Companies must develop a habitat compensation plan to ensure there is no net loss of fish habitat as the result of the approval of a tailings impoundment area, said Brigitte Lemay, a media spokeswoman for Environment Canada, in an e-mail.

There are five fish-bearing lakes that have been reclassified by both levels of government and at least another dozen under consideration. (A proposal must go through environmental assessments by the provincial government and then the federal government.)

Ironically, one of the lakes under threat is called Fish Lake.

Located about 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake, the mountain lake is home to about 85,000 rainbow trout.

Vancouver-based Taseko Mines received environmental approval from the province in January for its proposed Prosperity copper and gold mine on the traditional territory of the Tsilhqot’in First Nations.

The approval was contingent on fulfilling 103 commitments — including the creation of an artificial lake as a replacement for the destruction of Fish Lake.

Brian Battison, Taseko’s vice-president of corporate affairs, said the plan is to transport “some of the fish” from Fish Lake to the new one.

“Our proposal is to build a new lake in the same watershed and it will be larger and slightly deeper,” said Battison, adding the company would also introduce larger fish to the artificial lake for sport fishing.

“The that are there now are small and unhealthy. Out of the loss of one lake you get a new lake and the opportunity for enhanced fishing in the region.”

Environment Canada said it is more environmentally sound to destroy a natural lake than build a tailings pond because tailings can release acidic drainage when they are exposed to air, which can pollute nearby lakes and streams. The agency said underwater storage prevents acidic drainage, a reaction that can occur when sulphides in the rock acidify the water.

“In some cases, use of a natural water body may provide the best storage option to ensure that the tailings are stored in a safe, controlled way, as it may have fewer risks of engineering failure than on-land storage under water in some cases,” said Lemay.

A federal environment panel review process on the Prosperity mine proposal wrapped up last weekend.

The panel will write a report to be finished by July 2. The report then goes to Minister of Environment Jim Prentice for a decision.

Critics of the mine say the destruction of Fish Lake — considered sacred by the Tsilhqot’in First Nations— could also harm salmon in the Fraser River if the chemicals leak into the Taseko River, which is a major salmon run into the Fraser River system via the Chilko and Chilcotin rivers.

“Fish Lake is connected to an existing water system that is connected to the Fraser River. How many more hits can the Fraser take?” said Barlow.

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